An evaluation of the three-month long government campaign reveals that it did not address the important questions of accession. Instead, the huge pro-EU posters said, “Can I open a confectionery in Vienna? YES!”, “Are there nice girls in Europe? YES”, “May I eat poppy-seed bread in Europe? YES”, etc.
The Hungarian EU referendum - a passive choice?
Hungarians strongly supported their country's European Union membership in a referendum last Saturday, with a notable majority of 83,76 percent of voters saying, “Yes” to the EU. However, this result reflects the attitude of only 38% of all eligible voters because the turnout for the referendum was only 45,62%.
The western part of Hungary – which not only is closer to the EU geographically, but is where western citizens have a more visible presence - had a slightly higher turnout. In the meantime, some eastern counties saw a turnout of only 20% of eligible voters.
This low rate of participation is in sharp contrast to preliminary polls, which predicted that at least two thirds of the Hungarian electorate (8 million voters) would go to the polls last Saturday. One could easily attribute this to the good weather conditions, as many people tend to go to their summerhouses in the countryside and don't return to the cities before Sunday evening. In light of this, even a referendum might seem a rather less important matter. On the other hand, the low turnout may have been due to the overall perception that going to the polls was not that vital as the result had already been decided. According to the position of the present government, those who chose to say “No” to the EU, would be turning against the interests of their country, their children and basic European values.
These considerations might be important. However, in my opinion the real explanation for such a low turnout may be found in the pre-referendum campaign.
The ruling Hungarian Socialist Party used the referendum as a tribune for its own propaganda campaign, which has not abated since the last general elections in May, 2002. Sometimes they have thought of themselves as true representatives of European values, accusing the opposition party of willingly blocking the Hungarian road to Europe. The government spent some 10 million Euro on its campaign to promote EU membership. The EU-sceptics’ campaign got no support from the state budget. Furthermore, those who tried to run a "No" campaign at their own expense were condemned for being extremists and troubled by the police over their posters.
An evaluation of the three-month long government campaign reveals that it did not address the important questions of accession. Instead, the huge pro-EU posters said, “Can I open a confectionery in Vienna? YES!”, “Are there nice girls in Europe? YES”, “May I eat poppy-seed bread in Europe? YES”, etc. This campaign, according to the opposition party FIDESZ, was primitive and did not touch the hearts of the people.
As a result, the issue of poppy-seed bread (which Hungarians will be allowed to eat even once they are in the EU) became one of the symbols of the campaign. It was also used in the official celebrations on Felvonulasi square (Demonstration square) on Sunday afternoon, when the results of the referendum were already known. In the event organised by the "Yes" campaigners, Katalin Medgyessy, the wife of the Hungarian Prime Minister invited the crowd to a 134-meter long table of poppy-seed bread. At the same time, Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy told news reporters that he would not allow the joy of Hungarians to be troubled with questions on the low rate of participation. Medgyessy made a comparison between the turnout and the World championships in football, saying that the Hungarian team wins regardless of the score - whether 1:0 or 4:0
In the meantime, many Hungarians think that EU membership is mainly in the economic interests of politicians. It is notable that one of the leaders of the ruling coalition, the Free Democrat Gabor Demszky announced that he would run for the European Parliament next year just as referendum polls closed. With salaries in the European Parliament approximately 30 times higher than the average Hungarian salary, many feel that politicians will be the first to benefit from the EU.