Far-right blocks Hungary's anti-immigration constitutional change

Far-right blocks Hungary's anti-immigration constitutional change
Orban will be disappointed with his first failed effort to change the constitution.
By bne IntelliNews November 9, 2016

The Hungarian parliament rejected the proposed constitutional amendment against EU migrant quotas on November 8, with the refusal of the far-right Jobbik to support the prime minister's high profile push decisive in the defeat.

The failure to change the constitution is clearly a big disappointment for Prime Minister Viktor Orban, but the fiasco is unlikely to significantly affect his support at home. In fact, the failed proposal offers his ruling Fidesz party a chance to attack Jobbik, which is Hungary's biggest opposition party.

“The fight against the mandatory relocation quota is not over, and the amendment to the constitution would have provided great assistance in that," complained Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto. "Today’s vote in parliament has deprived the battle for the protection of the country of this very important weapon."

Contrary to its last term, Fidesz has no constitutional majority in parliament since the 2014 election after losing seats in byelections. While left-wing opposition parties had earlier announced that they would not support the amendment, Jobbik had given Fidesz an ultimatum, demanding it scrap its controversial residency bond programme in exchange for support.

Fidesz refused to bow to what it called "blackmail". The proposal won 131 votes, representing all seats held by the government but leaving it two short of the required two-thirds majority.

The result is a setback for Fidesz, which has waged a populist fight against immigration over the past two years or so, a tactic that has revived support for the party. The government spent HUF17bn (€55mn) this summer on a vicious campaign ahead of a referendum on EU migrant quotas in October.

At that ballot, 98% voted against the quota system. However, a low turnout left the result invalid, and sparked questions over Orban's ability to mobilise mass support. Bullish to the last, the government insisted it had a mandate to change the constitution anyway, in order to reflect the “will of Hungarians”.

Fidesz used its two-thirds majority in 2011 to produce a new constitution, which has been amended six times since. The proposed amendment on migrant quotas was the first submitted by Orban himself , but also the first to be rejected.

A failed constitutional amendment, on top of the invalid referendum, will likely weaken Orban's efforts to turn himself into an international heavyweight and leader of conservative populism. At a domestic level, however, the fiasco is not likely to threaten the popularity of Fidesz, which is supported by 34% of the total population, according to the latest data published in October by pollster Nezopont Institute.

The recent swelling of the government-friendly media will belittle the significance of the defeat. At the same time, Jobbik’s boycott gives the ruling party a chance to attack.

The far right party has made serious efforts to ditch a thuggish image in recent years. “They [Jobbik] want to be the obvious party for anti-Fidesz voters. They want to be the ‘clean’ Fidesz,” Andras Biro-Nagy at political research institute Policy Solutions noted to bne IntelliNews earlier this year.

The success of that drive is reflected by the fact that Jobbik is now Hungary's second biggest party, and attracted more than 20% of the vote in the last election in 2014. Fidesz is certainly not unaware of that rise, and has steadily moved further to the right in a bid to co-opt the trend. Jobbik had earlier proposed both a referendum and constitutional change to defend against EU migrant quotas, for instance.

After the failure of its proposal, the ruling party will only be more determined to claw back some of that support ahead of elections in 2018. Fidesz was quick to launch the attack.

"Jobbik has received a stigma that it will never be able to wash off," claimed Lajos Kosa, leader of the Fidesz parliamentary group. "Hungary can only count on Fidesz ... in the struggle against migration."