„National Consultation” Campaigns in Hungary

Orban_EPP 35
Source: flickr.com/European People’s Party_CC BY 2.0

What Are They and How Do They Look Like?

  • The so-called “national consultation surveys” are direct marketing campaign letters sent to every Hungarian household on behalf of “the government of Hungary”.
  • They are supported by a countrywide billboard campaign, with full support from the state and Fidesz-dominated media as well as ads in pretty much every local paper.
  • The campaign against George Soros and his alleged “Soros plan” is the 7th campaign of this kind by the Orbán government since 2010.
  • They supposedly “ask the opinion of the people” but their results are not public and the questions are rather rhetorical – and often filled with fearmongering and scapegoating.
  • They are heavily criticized not only for being “hate campaigns” but also for being part of Fidesz’ efforts to set the political agenda – at the taxpayers’ expense.

 

PM Orbán has mastered the art of using his position to perpetually campaign for himself and his party, Fidesz, on the taxpayers’ dime. The direct marketing letter campaigns started after the Orbán-government came into power in 2010 and their alleged purpose is “to ask the opinion of the people” on certain issues.

But that is just a political lie. One needs a good excuse to continue sleeping well and ignore what these letters really are.

 

Agenda-setting and hatemongering

First of all, the issues that are raised in these letters are often non-existent, the threats they warn you about never materialize in your life, and some people first hear about these alleged threats only from the surveys. There was a mail campaign about restoring the death penalty, another one blaming Brussels for our economic woes and another mail campaign right before Orbán’s anti-EU, anti-immigrant referendum “on migration and terrorism” in 2016 with questions like:

“Some think Brussels’s mishandling of immigration contributed to the advancement of terrorism. Do you agree with that?”

“Do you think Hungary will be a target of a terror attack next year?”

“How important do you think are the advances of global terrorism (ISIS and recent attacks in France) in your life?” (Yes/No)

 

Many of these letters (the 7th mail campaign was launched recently) only servescaremongering against migrants and now against George Soros personally. Think what you want about Soros, but targeting an individual in “public service announcements”, on billboards and all over the media at the taxpayers’ expense and on the government’s command should alarm everyone. Once a precedent has been set, there is no way out.

Even discussing these “non-issues” helps Orbán stay in power. This is how people have “learned” that terrorism affects their own lives and is linked to migration. And this is how they are distracted from the state of the health care system (that actually kills thousands of Hungarians – unlike terrorists), the state of the economy and rampant, state-sponsored corruption and arrogant cronyism.

 

 

The campaigns are also useful for Orbán abroad

These marketing campaigns that supposedly reveal the concern of the nation also shield Orbán against international criticism. As the director of a think tank recently put it:

 

“The consultation sets the agenda, keeps the 〈Fidesz〉 voters together in one camp and it also works well as an argument in international politics… You can always just tell in half a sentence how many millions of people have expressed their wish.”

 

So there you go, dear foreign leaders. You will be dismissed with half a sentence and silenced with the (alleged) results of these national surveys, should you dare to question Orbán’s policies. In fact, ask anyone in power in Hungary and he or she will tell you the success story of “national consultations” and how they express “the people’s wish”. They have been briefed by communication professionals to do so.

The answers to these vile questions, as well as the actual wish of the Hungarian people, do not really matter. Some people supposedly sent their answers back, but as you can see from the options above, these questions are not meant to be answered. They deliver the government’s message and only serve to let you know what you should be afraid of, whom you should blame and hate, and what you should be worrying about instead of your actual problems.

 

 

How many Hungarians respond to these survey and what do they answer?

Are Hungarians really that naive? I personally would like to know that, too, although it hardly matters if you think about it. The damage is done the moment someone reads these questions. And if the government writes about it, it must be important, right?

Anyway, the government is not obliged to divulge information about the alleged responses. In legal terms, “national consultations” do not exist so they don’t owe the public any explanation about how many of the direct marketing letters have been sent back and what they said. As the above mentioned Fidesz-friendly analyst has put it:

“Let’s put it this way, this is not a quality- but a quantity-based campaign. It is really irrelevant how many percent of people answer yes or no, only how many supported this by participating.”

There is a reason another high-ranking Fidesz politician dismissed it as “rhetorical element of the upcoming election campaign” by Fidesz.

 

 

How much do the surveys cost?

With regards to the costs of these alarming marketing campaigns, some pesky journalists, the last ones standing, managed to find out the expenses for the last campaign that contained questions like:

 

“It is established fact now that illegal immigrants targeting Hungary are encouraged to commit illegal activities not only by human traffickers, but also by certain international organisations. What do You think Hungary should do?”

A – Activities that aid illegal immigration – such as human trafficking and popularizing immigration – must be punished.

B – Let us accept that there are international organisations that can encourage to flout Hungarian laws without consequences.”

 

The Fidesz party spent approx. 4 million euros of public money on telling people that we need to “Stop Brussels!” because Brussels wants to take over control of utility bills, that Brussels wants multinational companies to deliver poor quality products to Hungary, that Brussels wants international organisations to be unaccountable, and that Brussels wants to forbid the Hungarian government’s heartfelt efforts to lower taxes and create jobs. “Brussels”, not the “EU“, because the European Union  still enjoys high popularity among Hungarians.

 

 

Campaign against the “Soros plan”

In October 2017 they sent out a new letter with the message that you should be afraid of the so called “Soros plan”. Don’t worry, it doesn’t exist. But since the government keeps telling the people about it, it might as well.

As every bad leader in history, Orbán needs a scapegoat. He is infamous for thriving when in war mode and the 2018 elections are going to be just that: a war. (Fidesz politicians actually keep promising blood and riots and war on the streets.) And who is the scapegoat that polls best to keep the flock together? George Soros.

Orbán and his propaganda machine have been experimenting with scapegoating for a while. They attacked NGOs for being ‘foreign’, they complained about dual food quality and they blamed “Brussels” (but not the “EU”) for virtually everything. There was even a two-week attack against women in which every major (and minor) Fidesz and “Christian democrat” politician said something obnoxious about women’s role in the world.

But it started even earlier. In 2010, 2011 we fought the IMF in a so-called  “freedom fight”, after that we fought national debt. Then we “defended” pensions – by nationalizing the private pension funds. During the 2014 election campaign, Orbán waged a war on utility costs. But those issues didn’t mobilize as well as migrants did in 2015. So they continued with the migrant threat and today we blame Soros for trying to settle them down here.

In recent months, Orbán revved up his war against Soros – most obviously by trying to shut down the Soros-founded Central European University with spurious bureaucratic justifications. That has been put on hold for now but the campaign against Soros is in full swing.

There have been two sets of billboards, supported by full-page adverts in the Fidesz media and now a letter has been sent to every Hungarian household on behalf of “the government of Hungary” to warn Hungarians about the threat of the alleged “Soros plan”.

The “national consultation” starts with a plea from the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán that calls his fellows to arms in this dangerous, historic moment that was unleashed by Soros and “Brussels’ leaders”.

It asks to “raise our voices” because “George Soros has a dangerous plan and an foreign international organisation is working on its execution“. It starts with stating that Soros wants to settle one million migrants in Europe and “according to the plan they would give 9 million forints to every immigrant from taxpayers’ money.”

That’s around 30.000 EUR. Apart from the irony that Orbán suddenly claims to care about spending taxpayers’ money, it is worth noting that given the low wages and increasing poverty in Hungary, 30.000 EUR sound like an awful lot of money. The average take-home salary is just over 6000 EUR per year.

“What makes this plan extraordinarily dangerous is that numerous leaders in Brussels are supporting it. If it came true, Hungary’s culture and population would irreversibly change.“

It is probably worth mentioning that even the admittedly questionable EU refugee quotas would only settle less than 1300 perfectly legal, security vetted refugees to Hungary (who do not want to come here).

“…countries countering the Soros plan are under attack. Brussels wants to punish these countries. Brussels wants to punish Hungary because we protect ourselves and thereby entire Europe with a fence.“

But Brussels wants us to bring down the fence and “admits many illegal immigrants into the EU”. (Apparently, ‘illegal’ is just a word hat we carelessly use these days without any reference to law or facts).

“The Soros plan endangers our communities and traditions. It endangers Hungary and the Europe we know and love.“

The letter is addressed to “My Fellow Patriots!” and is signed by Viktor Orbán.

 

Soros 6
Photo: Eszter Nova

 

The “questions” about the “Soros plan”

The survey itself is not really a survey. This is where you learn what your opinion should be, please don’t insult your intellect by treating these surveys as an instrument to actually“asking people’s opinion”. We only infer what the Soros plan might be from these questions.

Besides, it is hard to understand why our government is asking questions if they really see a deadly danger somewhere. Do they really need to ask us whether to tackle it?

The “questionnaire” contains long, elaborate explanations such as:

 

  1. Based on the Soros plan, Brussels should require every member state, including Hungary, to pay 9 million HUF in mandatory state aid for every immigrant.

 

According to Soros, significant amounts should be spent on immigrants. “The EU should provide EUR 15,000 per annum per asylum-seeker for the first two years to help cover housing, health care, and education costs – and to make accepting refugees more appealing to member states.” (Project Syndicate, September 26, 2015). According to the billionaire, this sum should be paid from loans. Soros proposes that taxes should be raised to pay the loans back. The billionaire would raise the value-added tax and taxes on gasoline and tourism. Last year, in Brussels, Soros also recommended that the EU, in order to overcome the migration crisis, should decrease agriculture and cohesion funds for Central European countries.

 

Do you support this point of the Soros plan?   YES /NO

 

Someone at the ministry clearly went through Soros’ work to find damning evidence. All in all, I was surprised how feeble their quotes were.

The letter also claims things like:

 

  1. George Soros wants to achieve that migrants receive lighter sentences for the crimes they commit.
  2. The goal of the Soros plan is to push the language and culture of European countries back in order to accelerate the integration of illegal immigrants.

 

Soros 7
Photo: Eszter Nova

 

See the complete questionnaire here: https://meanwhileinbudapest.com/2017/10/25/national-consultation-on-the-soros-plan/

 

And the reactions?

As said above, we will never know how many letters were returned and what they said. The answers themselves don’t even matter – even according to government officials.

But we know how some people react. An incensed crowd attacked a blind pianist the other day when he admitted that he threw the letter out. Anti-Semitic graffiti suddenly appeared everywhere. And a journalist who visited a local meet-the-politician event was shocked to hear that pensioners, who seemed sane and safe, had proper post-communist flashbacks, calling for the extension of the definition of treason and eliminating “the enemy among us” – referring to entities that want to kill the nation with migration.

All anecdotal, of course. But please don’t believe that everyone will see through this propaganda. Just like not everyone will fall for it either.

 

This is not about migrantion or George Soros

These campaigns are not really about immigrants or even about Soros. It is about grabbing power and building an autocracy by appealing to the lowest instincts and deepest fears of the population – who are otherwise cut off from any other source of information or news. Especially international news.

The questions want to outrage the people on every level. From talking about removing Christian crosses because of “immigrants’ sensibilities”,, to appealing to money envy (how much do Hungarian workers indeed have to work and  how little money do they make?) and to downright apocalyptic scenarios (the threat of ethnic death, which is a prominent topic in the Hungarian education system and in the political discourse, is now stretched to affect all Europeans).

You can see how Angela Merkel’s welcoming policy and the EU’s schizophrenic and slow response to the refugee crisis was a godsend for Orbán and his fellows. They now can enjoy unconditional political support from nationalists everywhere for their “tough immigration policy” which is in reality mere xenophobia and distraction from domestic problems. And in Orbán’s case, it also distracts from his real agenda, the building of an illiberal and authoritarian nation.

 

 

Eszter Nova ist Fellow am Institut für Finanzforschung in Budapest und Autorin des Blogs Meanwhile in Budapest (www.meanwhileinbudapest.com). Sie widmet sich kulturellen Themen und kommentiert aktuelle Angelegenheiten in Ungarn.