Asking the wrong questions, the wrong way: Why replicating “national consultations” is an inadequate response to their success

By Bálint Mikola

Although national referenda have become a rare species in post-2010 Hungary, the use of another instrument of plebiscitarian democracy—non-binding informal polls called national consultations—has not only been serving as a legitimization tool of government policies, but it has also been adopted by an opposition movement as a mobilization technique. This article argues that the strategic adoption of populist democratic repertoires, along with their main procedural flaws, is a threat to democratic representation. There is a need to shift discussions toward how these processes can be improved.

“Outrageous” is the adjective that ex-candidate for PM and leader of Everybody’s Hungary Movement (MMM) Péter Márki-Zay used when prompted by independent news site to respond to allegations that his movement’s recently launched questionnaire was demagogic. Both the questions included in MMM’s recent consultation (referred to by Márki-Zay as “real questions”), as well as their leader’s reaction in fact bear striking resemblances to how the governing Fidesz party would go about its “national consultations”.

After 2010, this plebiscitary instrument was initially employed by the government as a more agile and less constraining alternative to national referenda. Its apparent aims were to fabricate public support for certain government policies and to legitimize decisions already taken (Bartha, Boda and Szikra 2020). Even though the questionnaires used for this purpose have been criticized from the outset for their extremely manipulative wording (e.g. Oross and Tap 2021), this did not prevent the government from using them as a substitute for genuine public debate, even when concerning issues as important as the adoption of a new constitution (known as the Fundamental Law) in 2011 (see Enyedi 2015, Bátory 2016).

Such consultations provided at least four benefits to the government: a demonstration of popular support that could be used to defend unorthodox measures abroad (see Bátory and Svensson 2019); a large-scale mobilization of the governing party’s voter base, mostly financed from the state budget; an unprecedented opportunity to collect supporter data; and a powerful tool to shape the public agenda.

The governing party’s virtually unconstrained access to public resources allowed it to boost its support through mobilizing the electorate in favor of its own agenda, launching national consultations already twelve times during its twelve-year tenure to date. At the same time, the National Election Committee has routinely rejected referendum initiatives from opposition parties and independent citizens alike. The only national referendum held since Fidesz’ takeover concerned the EU’s mandatory distribution scheme for the relocation of migrants in 2016, which was in fact also initiated by the governing party.

The deficiencies of national consultations do not stop at the theoretical level, where one could argue that they set a dangerous precedent of populist, plebiscitarian democracy based on “pseudo-participation” (Diehl 2018) and downplay the importance of substantive policy debates at the expense of discursive governance (Korkut et al. 2015) based on oversimplified, polarized narratives. These are really poor questionnaires, by any standard, or to phrase it more eloquently, “the consultations clearly did not live up to common normative benchmarks for how participatory mechanisms should be designed in order to allow for meaningful input” (Bátory and Svensson 2019, p. 235).

As an illustration, the government’s recent consultation on the “sanctions of Brussels” which ended on December 15 and allegedly (non-verifiably) generated 1.36 M entries, included the following question:

The European Parliament and several Member States would extend the sanctions to nuclear fuel cells. Nuclear power plants play an indispensable role in European electricity provision. A significant share of them operate using Russian fuel cells, whose short-term substitution is not possible for technical reasons. Therefore, extending the sanctions to nuclear fuel cells would jeopardize stable electricity provision and increase the prices. Do you agree with the sanction on nuclear fuel cells?

The question above is symptomatic of the national consultations in many ways. It presents an inaccurate description of the problem and its potential solutions (although such a sanction had indeed been proposed by the European Parliament, it’s extremely unlikely to be accepted by the Council);constructs a very strong narrative supporting the “right” answer, using categorical adjectives such as “indispensable”, and “not possible”;and frames the question in a dichotomous way, leaving respondents with only one “logical” option that follows from the narrative presented, while opponents are left with the uneasy choice of having to select a non-sensical response (answering “yes” to “X is very bad for everyone, and it will make your life more expensive. Do you want X?”)

Confronted with such examples of the governing party using state resources to engage in a highly manipulative exercise of fabricating public opinion (i.e., creating or strengthening majority attitudes based on an oversimplified depiction of policy dilemmas), several alternatives are potentially available to opposition parties. First, they could engage in an elitist-technocratic discourse, pointing out the flaws of the government’s national consultations and inviting the government to incorporate expert knowledge and interest groups in its policymaking instead. While preserving intellectual integrity, this strategy is unlikely to yield much political success.

Second, they may try to design alternative processes which are more suited to measuring public opinion on important issues. They may include a deliberative phase as well as invite experts to contribute to the shaping of the agenda. They could thereby compile a questionnaire that is unbiased in its wording and provides sufficient and neutral resources to inform participants’ decisions. They may invite external observers to safeguard the fairness of the process and invest heavily in data security if online participation is also offered. They may share both the methodology and the results of the consultation in a transparent, verifiable manner. They may organize public debates and information events, as well as popular YouTube/podcast/social media infotainment series where contrasting views are presented on the issues at hand.

Then there is the third option: they can simply replicate the populist strategy of Fidesz and launch their own “national consultations.” Apparently, the movement of Márki-Zay decided to go down this road, which is neatly illustrated by the following “question”:

In 2021, well before the outbreak of the war, the government introduced a price cap on several food items, which has led to a shortage of goods affected by the price cap, while the price of non-price-capped items has skyrocketed. Instead of this, Western countries provided extraordinary support to their citizens. Do you think the price caps have achieved their goal?

It’s easy to recognize the same manipulative intent of posing a biased question which is logically speaking not open at all (“The government did something bad, and it also directly affects you. Other governments did better. Do you think the government did the right thing?”).

This attempt is based upon the flawed understanding that the problem with the government’s national consultations is that the wrong questions are being asked

However, what this example shows is that the questions may not only be wrong in their substance, but also in the way they are posed. Correcting the former does not automatically undo the harm caused by the latter.

This strategy of replication is regrettable for several reasons. If we accept that national consultations “were deeply flawed with respect to content, process, policy impact and resource efficiency” (Bátory and Svensson 2019, p. 238), then it makes no sense to try and replicate them. Although the stakes are arguably lower for an extra-parliamentary movement in opposition, propagating a practice as an instance of “participatory government” when your actual purpose is to mobilize your supporters and collect email addresses is not only misleading. It’s outright unethical.

Other responses from opposition parties, although more creative, signal a similar sense of being locked up in Fidesz’ conception of politics, thus solidifying the governing party’s exclusive agenda-setting role: liberal Momentum has launched an official campaign to collect national consultation sheets and offer them as fuel to families in need, and right-wing populist Jobbik has suggested that a national consultation about joining the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) should be launched instead (without actually launching an initiative), while Jobbik’s former party leader, Péter Jakab launched a reverse consultation in which his supporters could raise questions the PM should answer.

All these are reactive moves that fail to address, let alone correct, the fundamental flaws in the government’s national consultations.

Meanwhile, the government keeps insisting that national consultations are a success story and provide a method for channeling voters’ opinion into the policymaking process that “Western Europe does not understand.”

To conclude that techniques of participatory governance can easily be abused by populist leaders for their partisan purposes and should therefore be abandoned altogether would be too pessimistic. It would mean missing out on the opportunity to use these instruments in a meaningful way. Even if the extent to which the outcome of such consultations may feed into policy-making processes tends to be extremely limited (Pócza and Oross 2022) – due to the necessity to present policy dilemmas in an easily approachable and thus simplified manner –, one should neither underestimate the deliberative, nor the educative potential of such instruments.

Of course, face-to-face deliberative fora offer much richer possibilities for citizens to discuss and potentially shape policy agendas. However, these require much more time and effort that only a skewed sample of the citizenry will be ready to devote. If the aim is to create a participatory experience with non-binding implications (as opposed to binding referenda or decisive ballots for a more restricted demos, e.g., party members), having a relatively simple process with a low entry barrier seems like a fair compromise if governments or political parties want to solicit input from a large, if not fully representative, sample of citizens.

While agreeing with the warning that when “populist leaders present acclamatory and pseudo-participative procedures as an accomplishment of participation claims, democratic representation can be distorted or even destroyed” (Diehl 2018, p. 137), one should not dismiss the idea that these processes can be genuinely participatory. After all, designing a questionnaire that does not include leading questions, putting it on a website with adequate privacy safeguards, having the process monitored by an external observer, and publishing the results transparently should not be too difficult, should it?

Instead of discarding the idea as such, scholars should invest more in explaining how these consultations can be done meaningfully

and draw insights from potential best practices like the “popular consultations” in Belgium (Van Damme et al. 2017). Otherwise, chances are that the example set by the Hungarian government will diffuse to other parties who will replicate the same flaws to push their own agendas. This has unfortunately already started to happen, and it will certainly not serve the cause of democratic representation.

In collaboration with Ferenc Laczo

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