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Orban’s ‘Neverendums’

Critics counter that the questions are mostly irrelevant, as no school organises sex education for children without the consent of parents and gender reassignment is not legally possible under the age of 18, and even for those older has been made extremely difficult. And sexual content in the media is already regulated by the EU and the Hungarian media law, pointed out Mérték, a media monitoring think tank.

As such, this latest referendum called by Fidesz, less than five years after the last one, is more likely an attempt by Orban’s increasingly besieged government to rally voters and distract from its problems. The referendum’s fate is also expected to be similar to the previous one on migration, which was declared invalid due to low turnout.

Running out of ideas

Despite the screaming international headlines about the referendum, experts in Hungary warn it is important to keep a cool head and not to overreact.

“Let me start from the beginning: despite the high death rate, Fidesz emerged as a winner from the coronavirus pandemic in Hungary and its support was on the rise until early summer, when the controversy surrounding China’s Fudan University halted that. Surprisingly, it took the government several days to react, which already indicates that they are running out of ideas,” Andrea Szabo, senior research fellow of the Institute of Political Science in Budapest, told BIRN.

Problems have mounted for the government even since: the launching of EU infringement procedures, growing criticism over the rule-and-law situation in the country, revelations about the government’s use of the Pegasus spyware against journalists and activists, and the possibility the European Commission will reject Hungary’s National Recovery Plan and halt the 7.2 billion euros in desperately needed funds.

Remarks by EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynerds about not approving the recovery plan were probably the last straw for the desperate government, which lifted the restrictions on public referendums just hours before Orban’s announcement on Facebook. The ban was introduced in February as part of emergency measures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What surprises me is that there is nothing really new in Fidesz’s strategy. We’ve seen all this before – there is no innovation, there are no new ideas. They must really miss [former political advisor guru] Arthur J. Finkelstein,” Szabo said. “But it also gives the opposition a chance to react properly.”

Opposition parties have already indicated they consider the referendum a distraction and will call for a boycott. Legally speaking, the questions first need to be approved by the National Election Office and then by parliament, but it would be a huge surprise it they would not sail through given Fidesz’s huge majority.

The referendum could take place in November at the earliest, though the government-allied daily Magyar Nemzet wrote that it might be timed for January or February, two or three months before next year’s general election.

However, many political experts say the referendum could meet a similar fate to the one held on migration in October 2016.

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