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Direct democracy in Hungary is colonised: interview with Zoltán Tibor Pállinger

In Country in Focus, Democracy International takes a closer look at advances in modern direct democracy and citizen participation worldwide. This interview with Zoltán Tibor Pállinger, a political scientist at Andrassy University Budapest, is dedicated to state of democracy in Hungary. 

Tell us about political traditions and political culture in Hungary, please.

Looking at political traditions, Hungary has a very strong parliamentary tradition since the mid-1850s, which is still alive today. There were some phases when people took to the streets, and the representation system was less powerful, such as in the revolutionary times of 1989. As parliamentarism is the core of Hungarian political culture, direct involvement of the people and participatory mechanisms are rather weak.

Hungary is a centralised state with political processes centred around Budapest. The country is also a majoritarian democracy, so the party that wins can govern without having to deal with minority issues.


Almost a year ago, MEPs stated that Hungary has become an electoral autocracy. What, in your opinion, has caused this shift from one of the leaders in democratisation to a more and more autocratising country?

Hungary was one of the forerunners in democratisation; it was one of the first consolidated democracies after 1989. But the newly won democracy had the aspect of polarisation.

At first, there were five or six big parties, but later a two-party system has developed. In 2010, one side of this equation collapsed, and another party, the Fidesz party, was able to win the elections with a two-third majority. By Hungarian laws, this allows changing the constitution.

This was the momentum that they used to begin to change the constitution according to their interests, not having to bother about other parties. Fidesz reshaped the political system, concentrated power, created a new constitution, altered electoral law, and had measures in force that would help them strengthen their grip on power for a long time. For example, they introduced a Budgetary Council that has the power to veto the budget adopted by Parliament of Hungary. Following such a veto, the president can dissolve parliament. They have also completely reshaped the media landscape. The public media are completely controlled by the government, as are most of the "private" media because they are financially dependent on the ruling elite. Some media pluralism actually only exists in the online media. This means that the ruling party has a decisive influence on public opinion. Fidesz weakened checks and balances, and this way Hungary got on a slippery slope. The Fidesz party was able to win in 2010, 2014, 2018, and 2022 in a row, every time with a two-thirds majority.


Could you give us a brief overview of direct democracy instruments existing in Hungary?

We have three types of direct democracy instruments that are all called in Hungarian a national referendum. Despite the same name, they are pretty distinct instruments.

We have a citizens’ initiative, meaning that if initiators can scrape together 200,000 signatures, and the signatures and the question are validated, the referendum has to take place.

Another tool is the agenda initiative with a possible referendum. This referendum can open the door for manipulations. If the initiator can collect between 100,000 and 199,999 signatures, the Parliament can decide whether to call for a referendum.

The third type of direct democracy tool is an authority referendum that can be initiated by the Parliament or the President.

Parliament does not have to debate the content of the initiatives, it only has to provide the budget. It also does make a recommendation or cannot formulate a counter-proposal regarding the initiative proposal. Thus, the problem in Hungary is that there is no interaction between the representative system and direct democracy. Therefore, direct democracy only has a limited deliberative potential in this setting.


What can you say about their usage?

Between 1999 and 2008, we had six national referendums with twelve questions. Ten of these questions were citizens’ initiated, seven of them were valid, and three invalid. One of the other two referendums was parliamentary-initiated (on the topic of accession to NATO), and another one was a constitutional requirement (on accession to the EU).

Between 2009 and 2023, there were only two national referendums with five questions. All of these referendum questions were initiated by the government, and all of them were invalid.

If we look at the overall data, in Hungary, there were 17 questions, seven of which were valid. Who was the successful initiator of the votes? Authorities, parties, but not private citizens. That’s only one part of the picture; I believe there are other interesting elements to direct democracy in Hungary.

A referendum question can become obsolete if the Parliament legislates on the same question. In such a case, the referendum will be cancelled. Another way the referendum can become pre-empted is if a regulation is taken back by the government. One example of an obsolete referendum is the one in 2009. The citizens collected more than 200,000 signatures and wanted to put a limit on the expenses of the members of Parliament. I believe this issue would have been very popular, and the turnout would be big enough. The Parliament has renamed the expenses, so the referendum became obsolete and had to be cancelled.

Secondly, we have a very strong system of gate-keeping. Between 2008 and 2016, we had no single referendum, but there were 328 referendum proposals submitted to the Electoral Committee. Only 15 were validated, which is about five per cent. The rest of the 95 per cent were rejected with the reasoning of formal errors, ambiguity, bona fides, etc. There is gate-keeping by the Electoral Committee and the Constitutional Court. Questions are usually rejected without an explanation on how to reformulate them.


What can you say about civil society and the opposition in Hungary?

The government tries to control direct democracy by initiating referendums itself, which it can control. It has also introduced the instrument of national consultations, which are an instrument of political marketing aimed at influencing public opinion. However, no actual political dialogue takes place. Civil society has reacted to the government imitating direct democracy with national consultations. Civil society is not successful in triggering referendums, but they tried to implement innovations like primaries for opposition parties. In 2021-2022, the opposition had primary elections to have only one candidate in every constituency. The opposition parties also had one prime minister candidate. An interesting thing is, those primaries were technically organised not by the opposition parties but by civil society organisations.

There also are elements of deliberative democracy on the level of oppositional municipalities. They tried to create alternative forms of governance, overcoming the lack of trust in political bodies and passiveness. For example, in Budapest, there was a citizens' climate assembly, participatory budgeting, and Budapest residence assembly where people were asked how to react to budget constraints coming from the central government.

2024 will be interesting, as we have European elections in June, but also municipal elections in Hungary. As you can see, governing parties had taken an opportunity to have municipal elections at the same time as European elections, even though the mandate of the municipalities’ representatives lasts until October. So, there will be only one campaign which favours the governing party, and Fidesz will make it a campaign on Europe.

Overall, it is a very bleak picture at the moment, and some analysts say the opposition is clinically dead at the moment. A colleague of mine wrote, “Participatory democracy in Hungary is out of practice due to a lack of interest”.


Is it possible to generate this interest, and what are the steps towards that?

We really have a problem with opposition parties. We had the COVID-19 pandemic when Hungarian citizens died at a higher rate than in other European countries. The opposition couldn’t build a campaign on that. The 2022 we had an inflation of about 27%! The opposition couldn’t build a campaign on that either. We have problems with healthcare and schooling, there can be many opportunities to build campaigns. But at the moment, I don’t see how it could work out.
I think we have to generate interest step by step, and retry many things. Fidesz lost the elections in 2002, and they learned from it; they started to build up local constituencies, and they did it over a long time, losing in 2006 and winning in 2010. The opposition must reach out to the people not only in Budapest but also in other major cities.

My impression is that at the moment, opposition parties are content with being in the role of opposition. They are in Parliament for four years; they have all the privileges, they are well-paid, and they don’t have to take any responsibilities. And that has to change.

Another thing that has to change is that the opposition has to stop falling into traps set by Fidesz. For example, I have already talked about the opposition primaries. When it became clear that Hungary will have a united opposition, Fidesz changed the electoral law. Previously, one had to have candidates in 30 out of 106 constituencies, and now one has to have candidates in 70. This is important because the opposition has two strong parties, left and right, and they were planning to have two lists and coordinate them with each other. And when one has to have 70 candidates to receive ballot lists, the candidate lists had to be merged, not coordinated. Hence, the opposition ballot lists had both the extreme left and the extreme right and were not credible.

Fidesz is very good in this engineering aspect; it is a good machine, and the opposition has to become more creative and look for opportunities.