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Hungary's Manipulative Referendum

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The Brexit vote may or may not have been a tragedy, but Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary appears determined to follow with a farce. On Monday, he scheduled a referendum on keeping out refugees for Oct. 2, further threatening to undermine the weakened European Union. The referendum question -- "Do you want the European Union to be able to order the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without parliament’s consent?" -- is a textbook example of voter manipulation.

QuickTake Europe's Refugee Crisis

This isn't really designed to address the EU's plan to settle 1,294 refugees in Hungary -- the country's share of the 160,000 people that European authorities have proposed resettling from the Middle East. Hungary and Slovakia are already suing the EU over the refugee quotas, and, in theory, Orban could veto any such plan. The referendum will help him prop up his domestic popularity and give him a "democratic" bargaining chip with other EU leaders -- even though his strategy will be glaringly obvious because the question is framed in a way that produces only one answer.

Direct democracy's biggest vulnerability may be that it can be subverted by political players who ask the people loaded, incomprehensible or otherwise rigged questions. Recent examples abound:

The 2014 "referendum" in Crimea asked Crimeans to choose between becoming either a constituent part of Russia or a part of Ukraine with much broader autonomy under a previous version of its constitution. The status quo was not on the ballot. No one cared, though, because Russia already had decided to annex Crimea.

Greece's 2015 referendum on the country's latest bailout package asked Greeks: "Should the plan of agreement be accepted, which was submitted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund in the Eurogroup of 25.06.2015 and comprises of two parts, which constitute their unified proposal?" The ballot then named the two documents -- dense economic texts that few but experts understood. Greeks voted "no" and were duly ignored even by their own government, which had called the vote in the first place.

In May, the residents of Austin, Texas, voted on whether to scrap some tough rules for car-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft. The Austin city government outdid the Greeks, asking, "Shall the City Code be amended to repeal City Ordinance No. 20151217-075 relating to Transportation Network Companies; and replace with an ordinance that would repeal and prohibit required fingerprinting, repeal the requirement to identify the vehicle with a distinctive emblem, repeal the prohibition against loading and unloading passengers in a travel lane, and require other regulations for Transportation Network Companies?" Austin residents voted "No," prompting Uber and Lyft to suspend operations after spending millions of dollars on the referendum campaign. It's unlikely many people understood what they were voting for or against; I would have been confused, too.

In the U.K., Prime Minister David Cameron's government initially framed the Brexit referendum question in a leading way: "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?" The U.K. Election Commission recommended spelling out both options instead of just one.

Orban has no one to correct him. Earlier this year, Hungary's Supreme Court approved the referendum question. So now a Hungarian voter has a choice between agreeing with Orban or effectively recognizing that the EU can do whatever it pleases in Hungary without any national authorities having any say. The only other option is not to show up, thus refusing to be manipulated. If enough voters do that, Orban will be made to look a fool. But given the combined popularity of Orban's party, Fidesz, and the hard-right Jobbik, whose thunder Orban is trying to steal with the vote, there's a good chance the turnout will be sufficient.

Austria's court-ordered rerun of its presidential election, in which the eurosceptic Norbert Hofer could be elected, is taking place on the same day as the Hungarian referendum. In theory, the results could be a symbolic double whammy against the EU, further ammunition for nationalists everywhere to claim that Europeans are eager for a "democratic revolution against the unelected bureaucrats in Brussels." In practice, however, Orban's vote has little to do with democracy: It is a demonstration of how an authoritarian leader can abuse those values.

Unlike the Brexiteers, Orban is not even prepared to pull his country out of the EU. In 2014, Hungary was the second biggest net recipient of EU funds after Poland, drawing about 4.1 percent of its GDP from the bloc. Orban has said his voters would "hang him from a lamppost" if he allowed refugee quotas. They would be more likely to be angry with him if he took the country out of the union. 

The EU might be acting too cautiously in trying to avoid a post-Brexit domino effect. Yet it shouldn't let Orban subvert democracy. This might be as good a moment as any to start the process of suspending Hungary's EU vote for consistently trampling its founding values. The referendum is a prime example of that behavior.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net