Hungarian Court Approves Referendum Request in Blow to Orban

  • Top court rules on bid to reverse Orban's Sunday shopping ban
  • Socialist Party ballot request cleared after referendum fight

Hungary’s supreme court approved an opposition request to hold a referendum to end the mandatory closing of retail outlets on Sundays, an unpopular measure introduced in 2014 by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government.

The court, known as the Kuria, approved a referendum question submitted by a member of the opposition Socialist Party, which governed Hungary from 2002 to 2010, according to a ruling posted on the court’s website on Wednesday.

Hungarian 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 opening the way for Orban’s Fidesz party to win a landslide two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2010. While his party has since won every parliamentary, municipal, and European Parliament election, more than two-thirds oppose the Sunday shopping ban, an Ipsos poll published on Dec. 4 showed.

“This would be the first national ballot since 2006 that Fidesz could lose, and that would pierce their narrative that the majority of Hungarians is always behind their party,” Tamas Boros, a Budapest-based political analyst at Policy Solutions, said by phone. “I don’t think Fidesz can afford that, and therefore I think they’re more likely to scrap or loosen the Sunday shopping ban to preempt the referendum.”

Ballot Fight

No referendums have been held in Hungary since 2008, despite a dozen requests submitted on the Sunday shop closures alone, according to data from the election office. In the most recent attempt, Socialist Party member Istvan Nyako was surrounded by a dozen heavy-set men on Feb. 23 at the National Election Office and was blocked from submitting his question first. The supreme court, in reversing an election authority ruling, said Nyako had been blocked illegally and verified his bid.

Orban’s ruling Fidesz party, which leads all parties ahead of parliamentary elections slated for 2018, has preferred “national consultations” to referendums, asking voters regularly by mail to answer questions ranging from the migrant crisis to utility-price cuts. Unlike referendums, whose results are binding and independently counted, the mailed consultations are based on what the opposition has called pointed questions that are posed by the cabinet, which also tallies the results.

Referendum Questions

That may be about to change. The Socialist Party will seek to combine the Sunday closure referendum with one seeking to bar the government from selling state-owned land and one aiming to cap salaries at state-owned companies at a gross monthly wage of 2 million forint ($7,300), 444.hu reported, without citing anyone. Orban himself has called for a referendum to block a European plan to settle refugees by national quotas.

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 was building an “illiberal state” modeled on countries including Russia and Turkey.

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