They are calling it a consultation, but the questions are worded to get the answers they want

November 30. 2023. – 02:42 PM


They are calling it a consultation, but the questions are worded to get the answers they want
An advertisement of the national consultation on sovereignty protection in Budapest – Photo: István Huszti


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The blue billboards advertising the Hungarian government's latest national consultation have flooded the country, and they loudly proclaim: "Let's not dance to their tune!" At the same time, for the past eight years the government hasn't managed to ask a question in a national consultation without 9 out of 10 people answering it the way they want them to. This November, the Orbán government launched its 13th national consultation. The subject is the new mantra of ‘sovereignty protection’, and although the consultation is far from over, a draft Sovereignty Protection Bill has already been submitted to parliament, long before voters’ opinion can be known.

Several parts of the bill are so vaguely worded that it poses a real threat to the press as well. For example, according to the proposal, a so-called 'Sovereignty Protection Authority' would be set up to investigate 'processes suggesting foreign interference', but exactly what would be considered as such is not specified. Based on what former justice minister Judit Varga said during the parliamentary debate, the press could also be targeted, although Minister of the Prime Minister's Office Gergely Gulyás had previously claimed that the press would not be affected. Yet under the draft, the new agency would be authorized to investigate almost anyone, which in itself poses a threat to journalism.

According to the questions of the latest consultation, Hungarian sovereignty must once again be "defended against Brussels". The government says that "Brussels" is threatening, among other things: the subsidized utility bills, the interest rate freeze, the extra profit tax, the child protection law and the country's political sovereignty. As usual, the consultation is accompanied with a blue-background poster campaign: the billboards feature George Soros' son Alex Soros and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, whose presidency was actually endorsed by Fidesz MEPs and Viktor Orbán as well.

The veracity of the questions in the national consultation is itself questionable, and many of the issues it touches on are oversimplified. As usual, the answers suggest two options: to agree with the government and everything will be alright, or to live in a country which will be turned into a 'migrant ghetto', without subsidized utility bills and an interest rate freeze, which will send weapons to the Ukrainians and money to Hamas, while people eat 'genetically modified Ukrainian grain' and 'aggressive LGBTQ propaganda' is forced on children – all at the behest of Brussels, of course.

Consequently, anyone who does not support the government's position is unlikely to fill in the form. This makes it impossible for the result to accurately reflect the Hungarian public's true opinion, but the Fidesz-KDNP coalition can definitely use the survey to confirm its own agenda.

99.2 – not good, but not tragic either

In the past 13 years, the government has "consulted" people by mail and online a total of 13 times (the current consultation included). Of the 12 occasions before the one underway, 11 have followed the same format: a usually lengthy question with two, three or four potential answers. In the 11 questionnaires sent out in this format (the first consultation differed from the ones that followed, and its costs were covered by Fidesz itself), a total of 114 questions were asked. The one-sidedness of the consultations is vividly illustrated by the fact that for 70 out of 114 questions, the answers chosen by the majority of voters, and which were generally in line with the government's position were chosen by more than 90 percent of respondents.

What’s even more striking is that in six out of 11 consultations, the percentage of votes submitted for the winning, or most often chosen answers did not fall below 90% on any question. The highest consensus so far was on the national consultation sent out in 2017, named "STOP Soros". In it, the population was asked for their opinion on the "Soros Plan". The respondents were so united on the subject that

among the answers selected by most, the one chosen by the lowest number of respondents still received 99.2 percent of the votes.

In other words, there was no answer where the number of people who "agree with the Soros plan" reached one per cent.

The last time the percentage of winning responses in a consultation was below 90 percent was in the fifth national consultation, which had immigration and terrorism as its subject in 2015. But even there, the percentage of people who agreed with the government's policies and approach was well over 50%.

In terms of the most selected answers, the only time in the last eight years when there was a disturbance in the force was in 2021: in the consultation on the post-epidemic re-opening, some of the winning responses stayed below 90 percent. However, this consultation was unique for several reasons: people were asked genuine questions about their opinion on the particulars of life after re-opening, and the questionnaire was only available online. And this showed in the result: a little less than half a million people filled in the questionnaire.

Although following these consultations, the government likes to invoke the seemingly convincing results derived from the submitted responses, and supposedly bases its policies on them, the opinion of the vast majority of society is not reflected in them at all.

With more than 90 percent of the respondents choosing the “winning answers” it is worth looking into what percentage of the population actually participates in these 'surveys'.

Hungary used to have over 8 million registered voters, and this number is now only 7.7 million, which is how many questionnaires are sent out each time. The number of those mailing back the filled-out questionnaires has fluctuated over the last 13 years: the second one, which asked questions about the Fundamental Law, was returned by around 920,000 people. The "consultation on social matters" mobilized one million people, but only 700,000 returned the one on the economy. These surveys actually contained questions on serious matters. Of the eight million questionnaires on "immigration and terrorism" sent out in 2015, one million were returned to the government's mailbox.

In 2017, the questionnaire on "stopping" Brussels – which was supported with a propaganda campaign costing a billion forints – convinced 1.7 million people to return it, while the Stop-Soros consultation launched in the same year, was the most successful ever, with 2.3 million participants, according to the government.

If we look at the return rate of the eight million questionnaires sent out each time, it is clear that even in the case of the most successful consultation, less than 30 percent of the population actually 'consulted' the government.

They haven't succeeded in reaching that level since 2017. The consultation on protecting families attracted 1.3 million people, the questionnaires on epidemiological measures and Soros each received 1.7 million responses and the online-only questionnaire on the post-epidemic re-opening only attracted 528,000 respondents. When it came to questions on life after the epidemic, 1.4 million people "consulted" with the government. Reaching the desired number of responses on the last consultation, (on energy sanctions) did not come easy, so the submission deadline was extended by a week: in the end, with great difficulty, they managed to find 1.4 million people who sent in their answers.

2015, the turning point

Following the consultation on terrorism sent out in spring 2015, Fidesz presumably got fed up with the possibility that the percentage of the answers chosen by most respondents could be less than 90 percent, meaning that 100 percent agreement is almost never achieved. From this point on, something changed: in the six consultations that have followed since 2015, with the exception of the one on post-Covid re-opening, the questions have been presented in a way which effectively guarantees the response. This turnaround may be linked to the arrival of Antal Rogán, who has been in charge of the Prime Minister's Office since September 2015 and is also responsible for the consultations.

Only in the beginning did the consultation questionnaires assume that the electorate might not understand or be able to judge issues related to criminal law, taxation or foreign policy: 38 out of 114 questions asked so far included the option of answering with "I'm not able to judge", but this was slowly phased out. There was not much demand for it anyway, as not one of the 38 questions saw the percentage of those who could not judge the issue at hand exceed 15 percent.

Only once in the history of national consultations, i.e. only once out of 114 questions, has it happened that no question received an absolute majority.

This was well before the turnaround in 2015: it was in the third consultation, the one discussing social issues, and the question had to do with how social assistance should be delivered. There was no absolute majority on whether aid should be provided in cash or in the form of basic necessities.

Another thing that the early consultations reveal is that, if there are genuine answers provided as options to respond to a really important question, then it could happen that 99.2 percent of respondents do not choose the same side. The second consultation, which had the Fundamental Law as its subject, asked whether there should be a limit to the amount of debt the state can take on at any one time. There were four possible answers, including "I don't know": 52 percent agreed that there should be a limit, 39 percent said they would allow an exception, 6 percent rejected the idea and 3 percent opted for "I don't know".

Demonstrating the population's huge agreement with the government between elections is not cheap, and they do spend a lot on it. People were asked about George Soros's supposedly diabolical plans for the post-pandemic period for a total of HUF 11.5 billion, (1 billion HUF = approximately 2,63 million euros) but even the questionnaire on the post-pandemic reopening, which could only be filled in online, cost HUF 5.8 billion. Questions about life after the pandemic, in which Soros' name somehow reappeared, cost HUF 6.2 billion. And for the last questionnaire, on energy sanctions, the administrative costs (postage, printing) alone amounted to HUF 2.7 billion. This does not even cover the advertising costs, so the actual total cost is likely much higher.

If we only look at the consultations of the last three years, and use the published figures, they reveal that more than HUF 26 billion was spent on them. The first few consultations came in at around HUF one billion, but prices have gone through the roof in the past few years. This money is no longer enough to ensure that the questions raised and the results of the consultations can be tracked anywhere. The government holds the findings in such high esteem that all but one or two of the results can only be traced back through news reports and other postings.

In light of all this, only one question remains about the national consultation on "sovereignty" that will be arriving in Hungarians' mailboxes over the next few days: will 99 or only 97 percent of those who fill it in condemn "Brussels" for its supposed plans?

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