Hungarians not only still have a good sense of humor but they also are learning the ways and means of democracy. Take the infamous referendum issue. The law states that only individuals, not parties, can put questions to the Országos Választási Bizottság (OVB, National Electoral Committee), but until now only people representing party or institutional interests took advantage of such an opportunity. However, now that our linguist presented his own questions (if you haven’t been reading this blog from the beginning, go back to the 7/11 post) and the OVB approved them, other ordinary citizens gathered their courage and sent question after question to the OVB. I already mentioned the "free beer" question, but lately a deluge of silly questions has reached the OVB, whose members with all seriousness, armed with legal arguments, must weigh their merits. Altogether sixty referendum questions have reached the committee to date. The majority of these questions serve to make fun of the referendum law as it stands. They show the absurdity of the whole idea. In most European countries there is no opportunity for such nationwide referendums, the notable exception being Switzerland. According to some political observers the referendum is actually a dangerous weapon against parliamentary democracy because a party (in this case the Fidesz) can use it for its own political gain. With this referendum, Orbán’s clear goal is to force the government to resign. He argues that if the Fidesz questions are answered in the negative it means that the government has lost the confidence of the electorate and must resign. But, as we know very well, in a parliamentary democracy the goverment must resign only if it loses the confidence of the majority of the parliamentary members. Of course, this is not the situation here. Gyurcsány’s coalition government has a comfortable majority.
We don’t have yet the whole list of these "silly" questions, but here are a few that have already leaked out. One suggestion was to reduce the salaries of the judges of the Constitutional Court to 50% of their current level. I guess as a punishment for allowing the Fidesz’s referendum questions in the first place. Another question involved the "lies" of the prime minister. If the prime minister-elect doesn’t keep his word after the elections, he should be sent to jail for five years. Among the questions there is one which goes like this: "Do you want all the ministries to move into the Parliament." This is another jab at the Fidesz, who complain bitterly about the government’s decision to sell the very expensive downtown buildings that were never intended to be office buildings and build a modern "government quarters." Another leaked out silly question was: "Do you agree that polygamy should be introduced in the country?"
According to the latest news, out of the sixty questions the OVB gave its blessing to one (not a silly one): "Do you agree that by the 2010 elections there should be only 193 parliamentary members instead of the current 386?" Well, if there is a popular referendum question that will win hands down this will be the one. The Hungarian parliament is simply oversized. The number of seats was designed for a country that was about three times the size of the current one. The population is convinced that parliamentary members do not really earn their money because they are not present during the debates. (Hungarians should watch C-Span!) Although their salary is very modest, the ordinary citizen still thinks that the salaries are far too high. The parliament is too expensive. The parties themselves have been talking about making the parliament smaller but they can’t agree. If a certain number seems to favor one party, then the others complain.
Another serious question that the OVB refused to accept was that of marriage between same sex couples. They argued that the Constitutional Court had earlier defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman and therefore there might be constitutional problems with the question. The two committee members who voted for the inclusion of this question argued that the European tendency is toward allowing such marriages, but it failed by vote of 2-5.
The "silly" questions achieved their aim. One of the members of the OVB mentioned that the institution should ask parliament to change the current law because as it stands these silly questions discredit the very notion of a referendum and make the work of the OVB impossible. Let’s face it, this is exactly what the people who submitted referendum questions had in mind. I think rightly.