• Thugs surround Socialist Party politician at election office
  • Opposition has failed in repeated attempts to hold referendums

A Hungarian politician was blocked by unidentified men from filing a referendum request that could have dealt a political blow to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government, in what the opposition said showed the erosion of the country’s democracy.

Socialist Party politician Istvan Nyako was surrounded by a dozen heavy-set men in the entrance of the election office in Budapest on Tuesday, which meant he wasn’t the first to file a request to hold a referendum to rescind the mandatory closing of shops on Sundays, introduced by Orban. Referendum applications must be submitted on a first come, first served basis on any given topic.

"This has nothing to do with democracy," Nyako told Bloomberg at the building. "Someone tell me why this institution doesn’t guarantee my ability to exercise my rights in good faith.”

The government is ready to face a referendum on the shopping ban and has
nothing to do with what happened at the National Election Office on Tuesday, spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said by phone. Orban’s Fidesz party blamed the incident on the Socialists who it said were intent on provoking a scandal, according to an e-mailed statement.

Store Closures

While a referendum to reverse a ban on Sunday store closures may seem mundane, in Hungary plebiscites have often had an outsized impact on politics. In a 2008 referendum, organized by Orban, voters rejected a symbolic 300 forint ($1) co-payment for doctor’s visits, triggering the fall of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany and opened the way for Orban to win a landslide two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2010.

"It’s no wonder that some pro-Fidesz forces are willing to use beefy, bald men to block the submission of a referendum request," Attila Tibor Nagy, a political analyst at Meltanyossag Institute, said by phone. "Fidesz would probably face a serious defeat at a referendum."

Since taking office, Orban has faced down criticism from the European Union’s executive for using his parliamentary supermajority to change the constitution over opposition protests and for appointing allies to head institutions, including the courts. After re-election in 2014 in a ballot international observers said was free but not fair, Orban said he had succeeded in building an “illiberal state” modeled on countries including Russia and Turkey. Poland is now mimicking Hungarian policies, citing Orban’s example.

No referendums have been held in Hungary since 2008, despite a dozen referendum requests submitted on the Sunday shop closures alone, according to data from the election office. Previous important ballots included one that helped usher in multi-party democracy after four decades of communism and referendums on joining NATO and the European Union.

Orban’s ruling Fidesz party, which has more support than parliamentary opposition parties combined according to a Tarki poll published in January, has preferred “national consultations” to referendums, asking voters regularly by mail on questions ranging from the migrant crisis to utility price cuts. Unlike referendums, whose results are binding and independently tallied, the mailed consultations are based on pointed questions posed by the cabinet, which also tallies the results.

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