The state of votes
The national consultation - a new instrument of direct democracy
Horváth Bence|translated by: Kiss Szonja
Is there a real public opinion behind the national consultations?
Bencsik R. Leona| translated by: Kiss Szonja
Horváth Bence | translated by: Kiss Szonja | 2018. March 22. 15:05
Extensive national consultations carried out in Hungary allowed the return of a real direct democracy by favouring the participation of citizens in politics.
In the modern sense, one of the principles of rule of law is to guarantee the human rights of citizens, including the freedom of speech but also the direct or indirect participation in the decision-making, in other words, in legislation. From this point of view, the state provides these freedoms to all citizens through the instruments of direct democracy such as referendums, citizen initiatives but also with the tools of deliberative democracy. The latter means the transfer of a debate to a national level where the opinions and also the arguments of the opposition parties are clashing in order to find a compromise and also an agreement among the representatives of different opinions or interests.
Accordingly, when we talk about the national consultations organised by the Hungarian governing party, Fidesz - Hungarian civil Union- we have to think about the latter type of direct democracy, mentioned above. Evidently, the objective of such consultation, organised by the opposition, would be entirely in contrast with the motives of a same national consultation prepared by the governing party, but in this article, our intention is not to point out these differences but rather to give proof that it can be considered a new method of hearing the opinions of the citizens about questions seen as sensitive by the government.
By nature, a consultation has advisory value but no binding power for the state, in contrast to a referendum. In this case the ideal principle is to rather obtain the agreement of citizens regarding diverse questions that require more discussion in order to take measures with the symbolic agreement of the majority of citizens.
The most important factor to mention is that in contrast to referendums, which are organized under a set of rules and predefined conditions, the execution of a national consultation is not subject to a complicated procedure, including a series of strict obligations concerning the initiative and the course of such an action. Instead, all national consultations are initiated by the government whose reason is to get to know better the public opinion on key questions.
It is evident that the number of responses depend strongly on the hot topics contained in the questionnaires - in general they gather 500 000-700 000 responses from the population that has the right to vote - which shows a certain indifference on behalf of the citizens. However, this is not an exception but rather a general characteristic of Hungarian political life.
The proportion of participation always depends on the topic just like the choice of method depends on the complexity of the topic. Thus, in contrast with the referendum, one of the advantages of the national consultations is that the government is able to pose a series of questions that can result in numerous additional pieces of information that can also help the participants to better understand the given topic.
What is always important is that the return of the questionnaires is always free and like the procedure of such a consultation, it is not limited to a day; those who decide to fill and return the questionnaire have several days to answer the questions. Since the last national consultation, the questionnaires can be handed in online as well; that makes is possible for citizens residing outside Hungarian borders to participate in the consultation and as a result, to contribute to its legitimacy.
Consequently, the national consultation can be interpreted as a direct dialogue between the central authority and its voters who have the possibility to express their opinions. This allows the authority to not only to find an agreement in order to protect its electoral base but also to be able to make decisions through questions that it considers crucial.
Bencsik R. Leona | translated by: Kiss Szonja | 2018. March 22. 15:05
The national consultation has become one of the most frequently used elements of direct democracy in order to ask the opinion of the Hungarian citizens about numerous questions that concern our society. Despite the fact that the consultations are accessible to the majority of citizens, they do not represent the opinion of the majority.
Analysing the results of this form of direct democracy, we can find a number of deceptive factors, like the political beliefs of people who fill the questionnaire, the will of political legitimation by the Hungarian government and the ambiguity of the questions asked in the consultations.
For a better understanding of the challenges of this political initiative, one has to analyse the nature of the questions asked by the Hungarian government. Depending on the character of the questions, we can acknowledge that those are closed questions that do not allow the citizens to express their opinions related to a certain phenomenon, not only considered as important, but also as debatable by the Hungarian government. This bars people affiliated with the opposition from filling out the consultation form, as only one option can be chosen without having the possibility of expressing any arguments justifying the response. By distancing the opposition, there is a risk of losing a big group of people and that transforms the national consultation to a purely unilateral representation, based on the opinion of a restrained group.
Concerning the establishment of initiatives of direct democracy by the government, which includes the national consultations, it is often supported by sympathizers of the Fidesz (governing) party. The importance of this initiative was highlighted several times, just like the idea that the national consultations and also the referendum of 2 October 2016 were open to all Hungarian citizens, including those living outside the borders. The reason behind this evidence is the lack of general interest among the people of the country and the disapproval of the foreign politics of the Hungarian government. Despite the presence of a stable group of supporters behind the Hungarian government, we can acknowledge that apart from the Fidesz supporters, the members of the opposition are not convinced of the efficiency of the national consultations. For this reason, it is also obvious that this national consultation cannot serve as a tool of legitimation of the politics of the Hungarian government.
Like it was mentioned above, the national consultation can be considered as one of the key elements used by the Hungarian government to justify its actions. Analysing the results of the national consultations as well as the referendum of 2 October 2016, we can find not only homogeneity among the answers but also a tendency according to which the people sending back the questionnaires are in favour of the ideas defended by the Hungarian government. For this reason, it is obvious that behind the actions of the government, there will always be a group of supporters which is not only stable but which gives a form of legitimacy to the actions of the governing party. This kind of legitimacy is always advantageous in the light of the approaching Hungarian elections. Effectively, the consultations allow the government to pre-evaluate its chance of victory and in parallel with this they show the high level of popularity of Fidesz.
Analysing the reasons mentioned above, we can ask ourselves if this element of direct democracy is really efficient and also if it is anything else than the governing party’s means to justify its actions. According to the arguments presented, it is evident that the Hungarian government legitimizes its actions and wishes to show the existence of a large group of supporters. In the meantime, we should take note that this procedure is costly, and in the end it is nothing but an estimate of the current government’s popularity. In addition, this action does not implicate the opposition as the consultations do not include questions considered as crucial, such as public health, education, well-fare or security of citizens.
Horváth Bence|translated by: Kiss Szonja
Bencsik R. Leona| translated by: Kiss Szonja
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