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Refugee vote is misuse of direct democracy

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„Do not take chances!” Campaign poster of the Hungarian government. Source: The Little Glass Slipper, CC BY-SA 4.0

Refugee vote is misuse of direct democracy


On Sunday, 2 October 2016, Hungary’s eight million eligible voters will decide in a plebiscitary referendum whether Hungary is to take in refugees along the European Union’s mandatory quota system. Democracy International condemns the upcoming popular vote as a misuse of direct democracy and criticices its very poor standards of democratic debate.

“In the upcoming popular vote Prime Minister Victor Orbán is using the Hungarian people to legitimise his anti-EU and anti-refugee politics. This referendum is contrary to the idea of direct democracy, which provides that citizens can initiate law proposals in order to counterbalance the politics of the majority. Prime Minister Orbán has triggered the top-down referendum, knowing that he has the majority of the Parliament behind him. He is blending the executive and legislative powers, and is allowing citizens simply to nod in agreement rather than act proactively,” states Daniel Schily, board member of Democracy International.  

In February, Prime Minister Orbán had announced to hold a popular vote against the EU's emergency proposal to relocate 160,000 refugees from Greece, Italy and Spain to other EU Member States. According to a mandatory distribution key, Hungary would have to take in 1,294 asylum seekers. In May, the Hungarian Supreme Court approved the plebiscite. Subsequently, the National Assembly approved the decision, with a strong majority of votes cast in favour by the pro-government Fidesz and KDNP members of parliament, as well as the opposition party Jobbik; the plenary session had been boycotted by the majority of the left-wing opposition. In June, Hungary’s Constitutional Court rejected four complaints filed over the planned plebiscite on the EU’s quote regime.

“The upcoming vote in Hungary shows parallels to the “Brexit” referendum held in Great Britain on 23 June 2016. Heads of Government delegate a politically sensitive decision to the people, while leaving little time for discussion. But emotionally charged debates, for example on refugee policies, need time to cool down to enable a substantial exchange of arguments. What is more, Orbán’s campaign is run on the backs of refugees. Direct democracy requires a preventive judicial review to ensure the protection of human rights and minorities”, says Daniel Schily.  

Democracy International regards direct democracy as referenda initiated by citizens through the collection of a certain amount of signatures with the aim of presenting new law proposals or correcting decisions of Parliament (facultative referendum). At least six months are required before a referendum is held to allow a substantive exchange of arguments. An independent referendum commission must ensure fairness and quality of the debate. A pre-emptive judicial review ensures compliance with the standards of constitutional law and protection of fundamental rights. 



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