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Refugee referendum Hungary’s government makes use of democracy rights

The campaign ahead of Sunday's referendum has sarcastic overtones. The poster by the Two-Tailed Dog Party reads: "The average Hungarian is more likely to see a UFO than a refugee in his lifetime"


On Sunday, Hungary will vote on immigration quotas set by the European Union. The highly divisive ballot measure is the latest step by the government to bolster its power at the expense of democratic rights.

“The ruling elite has colonised direct democracy and exploits it for its own purposes,” says Zoltán Tibor Pállingerexternal link, a Swiss-Hungarian political scientist from Budapest’s Andrássy University.

The referendum, a key tool of citizens’ participation in politics, became increasingly important after Hungary’s peaceful revolution in 1989.

Votes took place about Hungary’s membership of the EU and NATO. On several occasions, citizens also used the participatory right, enshrined in the constitution, to launch initiatives.

However, things took a turn after the rightwing Fidesz Party came to power in 2010. With its two-thirds majority in parliament, it pushed through a reform banning constitutional referendums and raising the bar for people’s initiatives.

As a result, over the past four years Hungarian authorities have approved only 15 requests – out of 329 applications – for campaigners to start collecting signatures for nationwide ballots.


Human rights organisations and some legal experts oppose Sunday’s vote on EU immigration quotas.

Critics say it goes against Hungarian law to decide on an international treaty and that the wording on the ballot sheet is flawed.

Most leftwing opposition parties have called for a boycott of the vote for legal reasons and as a matter of policy principles.

A reportage from direct democracy specialist Bruno Kaufmannexternal link, originally published in German, highlights the sarcasm and high emotions used by opponents and supporters during their campaigns.

It also explains the role of the Swiss government as well as St Gallen University in promoting research projects on direct democracy.

Urs Geiser,

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