A Matter of Semantics: The Hungarian Refugee Quota Referendum – Károly Gergely (Guest), Hungary

“It is merely a matter of semantics. Let’s just readjust our definitions. Let’s redefine ourselves as the real world and them as the world of illusion and shadow. You see, we’re reality, they’re a dream.” – The Purple Rose of Cairo

How is it possible that after the Hungarian refugee quota referendum both the government and the opposition was able to claim victory and that they succeeded? This article is going to explore this by showing that it is possible that these opinions coexist  – and in this case, they are both relevant.

The brilliant Woody Allen movie, ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’, is based on an interesting scenario: a character from a movie suddenly leaves the screen, leaving everyone shocked, those in the ‘real life’ and on the screen as well. One of his fellow ex-characters tries to tackle the existential crisis by suggesting that they should simply redefine their own world as ‘the real world.’ “It is merely a matter of semantics,” he argues. The same attitude is observed in the different reactions to the Hungarian refugee quota referendum. As the results changed, the discourse concerning the meaning of the numbers did as well.

This article is not going to discuss the different opinions of the government during the time running up for the referendum; it is merely going to point out the discrepancy between the different interpretations of the result.

Speaking of the results, 8,261,394 people are eligible to vote in Hungary. A mere 3,581,265 voted, out of which 3,260,729 voted ‘no’ to the question: “Do you want Brussels to be able to determine immigration policy for non-Hungarians in Hungary, regardless of the will of the Hungarian parliament?” Since 2010, the limit of validity is at 50% (the irony: the ruling FIDESZ party changed it), which means that the 40.4% of valid ballots was not enough to claim a complete victory.

The most obvious explication is fairly elementary and was prevailingly at the center of the discourse of Western media outlets as well as Hungarian opposition. Prime Minister Orbán was defeated, the boycott of the opposition was successful, the Hungarian people decided, Orbán should resign, Hungarians said yes to the EU, the Hungarian people rejected the government – basically, they share one common point that the legal invalidity of the vote means that Orbán suffered a defeat. This is a completely valid and straightforward argument and there is no question that there is truth there.

mszpplakatkampany3Caption: The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) campaigning against the referendum – call for boycott (Source: MTI)

But here the Woody Allen quote comes in. The government claimed complete victory, saying that 98% of Hungarians said ‘no’ – which, at first sight, is definitely false, but there is a different point to discover. If you see not participating in voting as merely not caring about the question at hand, it is not hard to ‘readjust the definitions’ and say that yes, those who cared and fulfilled their democratic obligations decided and said ‘no’. Those are the truly responsible citizens of Hungary, and those who missed out on their chance on voting on the referendum basically ‘gave up’ their right to let their voice be heard, hence the government should move forward and execute the will of the ‘majority’. It is possible to argue that this is just the twisting of words but there certainly is a legitimate argument.

There is one part which cannot be interpreted differently: the number of invalid votes. Previously, it was always around 2%. However in this referendum, it reached 6,33%. Budapest, the capital, performed strongly even compared to the national average of 11,7%.  There was also a village where the invalid votes managed to score a stunning 20,69% – although this meant 6 votes. Of course, there are counterexamples, where the amount of ‘no’ votes simply impossible to misinterpret – 100%.

Comparatively, after the fall of communism in 1990, 4.194 million people voted for parties which were not ‘spin-offs’ of the former communist party. This record hasn’t been beaten since. In a 2008 referendum, which was against different austerity measures (university fees, “consultation with your doctor” fee) – and was put forward by the then-opposition FIDESZ – approximately 3,3 million people cast their ballots. Nearly the same amount voted for the NATO membership in 1997 (49%). Regarding the EU membership in 2003, 3,1 million people voted for joining the European community, altogether 45% participated in the decision. Since the regime change, only two out of seven referendums were able to reach the 50% limit. Therefore in perspective, it cannot be said that the number of people voting was particularly low.


teljes-kepernyo-rogzitese-2016-10-02-213231-1024x576Caption: Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announces ‘victory’ (Source: 24.hu)

The main difference is clearly that while one view regards absence as an activity and an active show of opinion, the government and its supporters would like to only recognize the ones who actually took it upon themselves to vote and cast their ballot. My personal problem is that I can empathize and understand both arguments. 3,2 million people is definitely a critical mass in a country like Hungary and their nearly unanimous opinion must be taken into consideration. But the opinion of the other 5 million people does count as well.

I am not saying that one option is good and the other is bad. I am only saying that it is perfectly possible to move from one world to another. It is merely a matter of (semantics) politics.

This article was written by a guest journalist:

Károly Gergely, 20, Hungary

A sophomore in Politics and Modern History at the University of Manchester, originally from Budapest, Hungary. Besides his obvious interest in history and politics, he’s also working as a journalist and a part-time reporter and photographer.

You can write guest articles too! Look here for more information: https://unitedyouthjournalists.com/contactus/write-for-us/

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