Mon Mar 10th, 2008 at 03:59:33 AM EST
This Sunday, I can vote in a referendum on some 'reforms', ones concerning healthcare. But colour me unenthusiastic: I wonder if the vote will really decide the future of 'reforms', or only who'll govern next.
Though since I began to draft this diary, I do tend in one direction, I felt inspired by redstar: after some intro on the campaign, the politics and polls; I will present you with the referendum questions, and ask you to tell me what to do and why.
Update [2008-3-10 3:59:33 by DoDo]: Bumped for the coverage of the actual referendum. Live blogging in the comments. Below the preliminary final result:
Turnout: 50.49% (highest in a referendum since 1989)
Yes vote ( = rejection of 'reforms') as percentage of valid votes, and as percentage of eligible voters:
- Hospital bed charge: 84.08% (42.10%)
- Doctor visitation charge: 82.42% (41.30%)
- University tuition fees: 82.22% (41.15%)
As told in the comments, the PM announced a quick return to the status quo ante (not only from next year as in the referendum question), without earmarking extra funds for healthcare from somewhere else (the voter be punished for its foolish decision). Later he also had the gall to interpret absentions as silent support (also kicking those of his voters who are against 'reforms' but didn't want to reward the Right). Such spin may have worked for Bliar in Britain, but it looks suicidal here.
The referendum-initiating right-populists suggested to spend lottery tax income on healthcare... Meanwhile on the streets, riots were averted for now after one of the far-right leaders told the crowd that "we should wait a few days".
The basic situation, for the benefit of readers new to ET or my Hungary diaries:
Hungary is presently governed by a coalition of the post-reformed-communist Socialists (MSzP) and the now small post-liberal-opposition liberal Free Democrats (SzDSz) [bizarre huh?] under PM Ferenc Gyurcsány, a former communist youth leader turned businessman [no that's not bizarre]. The main opposition party is Fidesz, a right-populist party led by a yuppie cabal with former PM Viktor Orbán on top. The fourth party in parliament is a minor right-wing party currently viewing Merkel's CDU as role model.
Using runaway budget deficits as occasion, the government embarked on an austerity programme consisting of neoliberal reforms (also see Naomi Klein: Disaster Capitalism), with the notable exception of major tax cuts (no flat tax). So far, with little more result than an economic slowdown and popular opposition from the far-right to a good chunk of MSzP's base.
The most contentious is healthcare 'reform'. This was an SzDSz campaign theme, and then SzDSz made it the centerpiece of its government agenda. A suicidal strategy: the party tanked in polls, its healthcare minister and its neolib yuppie party chairman (whose election by a hair-thin margin I wrote about last year) rank as the last two in approval ratings of politicians.
Within the parliament, Fidesz fights against the reforms, for being anti-social [bizarre huh?]. Outside, street protests, often violent, have unfortunately became the thing of the far-right (who more or less explicitely subscribe to the liberals=capital=Jews=commies equation). There is no separation between the two. (Some) trade unions also raise some resistance, but in no small part due to the party-political links of the competing unions, they are ineffective.
In my last major politics in Hungary diary, Another Autumn of Discontent, I wrote about last year's referendum mania: the tragicomedic theatre of the two sides trying to bury each other with dozens of proposed referendum questions. We now get to vote on the first three of these: on the already in-effect laws that made healthcare and higher education not for-free.
In the meantime however, parliament already approved the real big reform on partial healthcare privatisation.
The referendum campaign
Basically, pro-government proponents reason that the State doesn't have enough money, the practice of patients giving money to the doctor for better treatment ("gratitude money") could be ended, and 'unnecessary' doctor visits and hospital stays waste money. Reasoning opponents argue that there should be money for this or that the measure only introduces extra bureaucracy and waits for patients, point out that gratitude money didn't disappear at all, call 'unnecessary doctor visits' a made-up problem or claim that those who really feel compelled to reduce doctor visits are poor patients with real problems.
The real campaign had little to do with reasoning, and was so inane I really don't want to bore you with details. I will only show the most colorful moments for entertainment. First I show three images. You should know the first one by now:
So look at the originality of the designer of the Fidesz referendum campaign!
"Social referendum 2008", it says. Now neoliberal reformists are non-plussed by such a slogan from a party occasionally using anti-communist rhetoric. Here is SzDSz's counter-placard:
It says: "2008 - referendum on socialism - THANKS, NO!" This from a formation that is in coalition with a party with "Socialist" in its name. I think irony just died (yet again).
As I mentioned, this was the perfect theme for the neoliberals' self-destruction. Even the lead columnist of the most pro-SzDSz weekly announced a No vote in the referendum, calling the doctor visit charge a "punishment" of patients. If that weren't enough, the right-wing media came in with a perfectly timed scandal.
I meantioned last year's narrow party chairman election. Now, two weeks ago, the right-wing media got the testimony of an SzDSz-close entrepreneur, who claimed that one local branch organised fake voting for absent delegates. Then a week later, they found one SzDSz member who was then an absent delegate, who found his faked signature on the attendance list. Having failed to make clean slate, the liberals are in total disarray, and that was it for their aggressive No vote campaign, too.
The campaign by other means was practiced by everyone against everyone, of which the most ridiculous was the "vote buying scandal" from right-wing private news channel HírTV (think Fox News with pretensions to look like BBC). They played taped telephone calls, in which Gypsy minority self-governance leaders ask the campaign manager of an MSzP minister about an offer to buy votes that he relayed to them earlier also by phone. HírTV also contacted police with this.
The trouble was that the original caller was quickly identified as NOT the campaign manager, but a reporter for HírTV itself... So they re-branded their exposure as 'investigative report', based on alleged earlier rumours. As for police, they continue to investigate...
Will a yes vote mean anything?
Winning the referendum could ensure a Fidesz government after the next elections, maybe even in early elections. Should they then be expected to get serious with public healthcare?
I have my grave doubts. On one hand, there is Fidesz's history of 180-degree-turns in its populism. There is Fidesz's history of policy ideas verging on Social Darwinism, like wanting to support rich parents to have more children than poor ones. There is Fidesz's praise for the economic boom achieved by the previous government of Slovakia, with flat tax and all, but healthcare privatisation was part of that (and was the main reason for that government's fall).
Then there is the age-old practice of newly elected governments to abandon election promises after declaring that "the situation left behind by our predecessors is even worse than we tought".
Then there is Lajos Kósa, major of second-largest Hungarian city Debrecen (nicknamed "The Calvinist Rome"). Though he is the only one in Fidesz with power independently of Orbán and his cabal, and thus makes his own policy, it gives one food for thought when Kósa declares that 'if Fidesz wins, what should be done is not undoing stuff'.
Until recently, Fidesz leaders openly called for radical tax cuts. Even during the campaign, Orbán said that tax cuts should start by ending the doctor visitation and hospital charges. Which makes one wonder if they seriously considered financing public health care. Or if they have any program -- as hard-left intellectual Gáspár Tamás Miklós says, here was the moment for Orbán to "declare the leftist programme his uninspired detractors - baselessly - accused him of".
Beyond the issue of how much of the current neoliberal destroyers' policies would really be corrected, I also think about whether they would let the far-right back into public media (as they did last time).
Note: (1) in the referendum, a Yes vote means a vote for the elimination of reforms; (2) a referendum is valid in Hungary if the majority constitutes more than 25% of all eligible voters (i.e. in theory, a 25% turnout with 100% Yes vote is a valid and successful referendum, the same with a 100% No vote is a valid but defeated referendum).
All polls show support for Yes over No at at least 70:30. Even with the expected moderate turnout (46-57% promise it, from experience that means 40-55% actual turnout), at least 30 and up to 50% of all eligible voters for Yes on all three questions looks certain.
MSzP supporters are much less willing to participate, and even half of those who promise to go would vote against the government. The majority would not want the government to resign after a successful referendum, but when the question is asked about the PM (Gallup), the majority is for a step-down.
(The poll sources: Medián, which is generally reliable, for HVG magazine; Századvég-Forsense, a creation of former Fidesz people; Gallup, which is Fidesz-close in Hungary; Socialist-close Szonda-Ipsos in today's Népszabadság, the main pro-government center-'left' daily.)
|Egyetért-e Ön azzal, hogy a fekvőbeteg-gyógyintézeti ellátásért a jelen kérdésben megtartott népszavazást követő év január 1-jétől ne kelljen kórházi napidíjat fizetni?||Do You agree that from 1 January in the year after this referendum is held, no daily hospital charge shall be required for the treatment of in-patients?|
|Egyetért-e Ön azzal, hogy a háziorvosi ellátásért, fogászati ellátásért és a járóbeteg-szakellátásért a jelen kérdésben megtartott népszavazást követő év január 1-jétől ne kelljen vizitdíjat fizetni?||Do You agree that from 1 January in the year after this referendum is held, no visitation charge shall be required for family doctor attendance, dentist attendance, and out-patient specialist treatment?|
|Egyetért-e Ön azzal, hogy az államilag támogatott felsőfokú tanulmányokat folytató hallgatóknak ne kelljen képzési hozzájárulást fizetniük?||Do You agree that students participating in publicly funded higher education shall not be required to pay tuition fees?|
So, how would should I vote? Should I even vote?
Should I be more worried of a narrow failure on validity, or a high margin of victory that is taken by some as a mandate?