Budapest, Hungary – Government plans to hold a national survey gauging citizens’ views on nine questions concerning, among others, segregation in schools and judicial independence, appear to be on hold among the raging coronavirus pandemic that sealed Hungary’s borders and prompted Prime Minister Viktor Orban to declare a nation-wide lockdown.
Survey distribution by mail was originally scheduled to get under way the past Monday, with the final round-up set for May.
Orban and his governing Fidesz party initially called for Hungary’s eighth “national consultation” since the invention’s legal inception a decade ago on 12 February this year. Back then, the new coronavirus was yet to trouble Hungary’s public health. The first two diagnoses of COVID-19 in Hungary were only reported in early March.
Despite the gradual spike in confirmed cases, government officials claimed the consultation would press ahead.
In an interview with the Magyar Hirlap daily published in the first week of March, Zoltan Kovacs, state deputy for communication and international relations, said the plan was to start sending out letters to citizens the week after 15 March. “We hope that coronavirus related challenges won’t ‘mess it up’”, he added.
Now, in the thick of the spreading COVID-19 disease, the popular survey seems to have been sidelined. At the time of writing, Hungary reported 58 confirmed cases of the infection, with one death caused by the virus and two recovered patients. State borders and most facilities except for those providing bare essentials are shut, leaving a nation of close to 10 million completely isolated.
Empty and silent
Many social media users said their letterboxes remained empty on the week’s first morning and an online version of the survey had not yet been uploaded.
“We are waiting [for new developments]. As soon as we know anything, we will make an announcement”, said an administrator of a protest Facebook group in response to a query.
The online group’s more than 20,000 members want to “hack Fidesz’s consultation” by returning their disapproval-clad letters to opposition parties instead of addressing them to the government that has remained silent on updates regarding the posting of survey letters initially scheduled to begin the past Monday.
Backlash against the national consultation has been buffing up ever since Orban’s mid-February announcement that came on the back of separate court rulings ordering the government to pay compensation to Roma families whose children suffered segregation and discrimination at school, and to prisoners who were locked up in unsatisfactory conditions.
Orban denounced both court decisions and said the administration would not make either payout. The PM now wants to use the consultation to manufacture consent for his decisions, the opposition claims.
A number of associations roofing psychologists, psychiatrists and sociologists protested the new consultation soon after its introduction, accusing the survey of mirroring the government’s political agenda and highlighting its manipulative potential that could damage society and demonise easy targets.
What’s in play?
Since 2010, the Hungarian state has faced more than 12,000 litigations on account of subpar conditions for its prisoners. And according to a European Council report from last year, Hungary runs the most crowded prisons among all EU countries, in proportion to its overall population.
Sued for nearly €30 million in the span of ten years, the Hungarian Parliament approved the government’s proposal to freeze all court-ordered compensations for convicts until June 15, in an effort to ebb what many government representatives repeatedly called the “prison business”.
Amnesty International Hungary director David Vig said he was outraged that legally enforceable judicial decisions could be made void by the scratch of a pen. “In this case, the Hungarian state caused damage to prisoners, because it was not able to secure conditions the state itself guarantees in its laws”, he told Euronews.
Government lawyers are also appealing the case of segregated Roma families in the northern village of Gyongyospata. Officials want to replace court-mandated cash payments of about €300,000 to the aggrieved families with additional training courses for the 60 Roma children who were subject to inferior teaching and excluded from several classes and activities.
“It smacks of anti-Roma sentiment and contempt for rule of law,” said Lydia Gall, senior researcher on eastern Europe and the western Balkans at Human Rights Watch, as quoted by the Irish Times.
“According to Orban, Roma kids getting damages for being unlawfully segregated flies in the face of the ordinary Hungarian’ sense of justice… Repeating age-old prejudice against Roma”, she added.
“Illiberal democracy” in sight
But government officials claim the consultation’s goal is to create “points of understanding”. The questions are about “restoring moral order”, according to Gergely Gulyas, the PM’s chief of staff. “The government has a clear answer and opinion about these issues, but needs social support for it,” he said.
Beside the two major compensation cases, the survey will cover financial settlements for migrants who took the administration to court for alleged abuses and whom the state labels as “illegal”. Questions on judicial corruption and independence together with stricter parole requirements will also be on the table.
If the surveys are posted close to the original 16 March go-ahead date, its answers could be made into law as early as May this year.
“This is Orban’s way of further dismantling the rule of law by pointing to the results of racist and anti-rule of law questionnaires, justifying changes to laws. We have seen it before. Another waste of public money”, Gall from Human Rights Watch said.
Though the government does not tend to reveal the exact cost of a consultation, expenses can add up to €4.3 million, some estimates say.
Previous national consultations targeted matters such as migration, relations with the EU and the alleged influence of George Soros, a Hungarian-born Jewish philanthropist whom Fidesz had previously smeared in an anti-Semitic political campaign.
The UN human rights office dubbed Hungary’s 2015 national consultation “absolutely shocking” and “fundamentally discriminatory” for openly linking migration to terrorism.
While Orban claims the national survey’s past renditions boosted his quest for revamping Hungary into an “illiberal democracy”, he has been in the crosshairs of Brussels over reforms that the EU deemed a threat to the rule of law.
Written by Edward Szekeres
Edward is a freelance reporter from Slovakia with Hungarian heritage. He is currently based in Belgium and the Netherlands where he is completing his international journalism studies. He is a regular contributor to several platforms delivering news and analyses in English from V4 countries and a thick-skinned fan of sport clubs that only keep on losing. You can check all his articles right here!