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Direct democracy in Hungary - powerful?

Direct democracy in Hungary - powerful?


The FIDESZ Party together with the Christian Democratic People's Party (KDNP) has the 2/3 majority in the parliament after the elections in 2010. The turnout was very low, only 47% of the voters took part. The 2/3 majority gives much power into the hand of the government. They can  modify the constitution and all the laws which require the qualified majority. FIDESZ used this power and changed the constitution. This earned a lot of criticism inside and outside of the country. In this article we check the modifications regarding the instruments of direct democracy.

Initiating a referendum

The old constitution foresaw: If 200 000 eligible citizens (2,44% of all citizens having voting rights) initiated a referendum, the parliament had to start it, and the decision was binding for the parliament.

If the referendum was initiated by 100 000 citizens with voting rights, by the President of the Republic, by the 1/3 of the parliament or by the government, the parliament could decide whether or not to call a referendum. If a referendum was called, the parliament could decide whether it will be a binding or a non-binding one.

A small change was introduced with the new Fundamental Law (accepted on 25.04.2011). The first part with 200 000 signatures remains in the current form without any changes, but the parliament still can decide whether or not to start a referendum in case the initiative comes from the President of the Republic, from the government or from 100 000 citizens with voting rights (although the parliament cannot initiate a referendum any more). If they decide to start, it will be a binding vote. With this decision, Hungary does not have the possibility to initiate a non-binding referendum any more. Although the question is still there: would the parliament start a referendum if they do not like the idea?

Time to collect signatures

How much time is there to collect the signatures if someone would like to initiate a referendum? According to the old constitution four months are available to hand in the valid signatures. But according to the new version, there is no time limit, which gives more possibilities and with this more power to the people.

Exclusions - in which cases no referendum can be held

The third modification happened in the exclusion list. According to the old constitution no referendum can be started regarding following issues:

a) the budget, the performance of the budget, the central taxes and duties, customs, about the content of central laws about the local taxes.
b) duties coming from the international contracts, and about the content of the laws containing these duties
c) parts of the constitution regarding people's initiatives and referenda
d) personal and organizational questions belonging to the scope of the parliament
e) the dissolution of the parliament
f) the programme of the government
g) declaring war, declaring extraordinary state or state of emergency
h) the operation of the Hungarian National Army within the country or abroad
I) the dissolution of the local City-Councils
j) amnesty

In the new Fundamental Law it has been extended in the following way:

– point c) has become point a) and will be extended to all questions regarding the amendments of the fundamental law;
– A new exclusion has been added as well: the content of laws regarding the election of members of parliament,  the city council, and the European Parliament, and the election of mayors.

Validity conditions

According to the old constitution a referendum was valid and successful if more than half of the voters, whose vote was valid, but at least more than ¼ of all citizens entitled to vote give the same answer. It has been restricted in the new Fundamental Law. The referendum is valid if at least half of the voters voted validly, and successful if more than half of the valid votes gave the same answer.

Popular Initiative

According to the old constitution if at least 50 000 signatures were collected, a popular initiative could be started. Its aim was that the parliament places an issue on its agenda, which is in the parliament's scope. The parliament was obliged to discuss the question described in the popular initiative.  Hungary does not have this instrument any more, because the new Fundamental Law defines the termination of the popular initiative.

If we look at the regulations about direct democracy, we can see that the conditions are not impossible to fulfil. However Hungarians do not seem to use this instrument. During the communistic dictatorship, there was not any possibility to use any elements of direct democracy. But after 1989 only 16 initiatives have been started, and from this only seven had enough valid signatures to call a referendum. From this four were successful. All the other initiatives had only 100 000 valid signatures and the parliament decided not to start a referendum in the questions (except 3 cases, in 1990, 2008 and 2009 where the Constitutional Court bounded the parliament not to start a referendum), or were unsuccessful because of the low turnout.

None of the successful initiatives have been started by the people but they were rather used for political purposes.

The first successful initiative came before the first democratic elections, started by the four parties of the Opposition Round Table to eliminate the rests of one-party state.

The second and the third came from the Government about the NATO and EU membership.

The forth and the last successful initiative so far is started by FIDESZ about tuition fees at universities and colleges, and fees in the health care system, which were introduced by the oppositional government in 2007. It is same FIDESZ, which now restricted the conditions, although this instrument of direct democracy is used very rarely in Hungary.

As a conclusion we can say, that the conditions to start a referendum are quite easy to fulfil in Hungary. But the biggest restriction is that people do not have the possibility to have a say about the Fundamental Law. And with this the government made a small step away from the real power of people.

Further info:

Check out what the navigator to direct democracy says on Hungary

Text by Zsanett Kocsó


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