Prime Minister Viktor Orban has claimed victory after more than three million Hungarians voted against the imposition of any European Union migrant quota on the country, but the referendum still failed to pass the 50% threshold, dealing the populist leader a serious blow in his attempt to confront Brussels over the issue.
Turnout in Hungary's referendum on the EU’s migrant quota system was 3%, the National Election Office announced on October 2. That leaves the result invalid, but the government insists it has a mandate to change the constitution anyway.
Around 3.3mn Hungarians - 98% of participants in the referendum – voted "no" to the quota system. In spite of failing to push the turnout above the 50% validity threshold, Prime Minister Viktor Orban claimed an outstanding victory, and that the result hands him a mandate. An invalid referendum at home, however, will offer little help for the Hungarian PM's efforts to be taken seriously on the international stage.
Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party ran the longest and most expensive campaign in the country’s history ahead of the referendum. While anti-immigrant rhetoric has helped the party divert attention from mounting domestic problems and expose the hopelessness of the opposition, there was confusion regarding what result and impact Fidesz expected from the referendum. That makes it possible to frame almost any result as a success.
As widely expected, the poll returned an overwhelming "no" to the question of whether Hungarians “want to allow the European Union to mandate the resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens to Hungary without the approval of the National Assembly”.
On the one hand, Orban's failure to cross the 50% threshold - despite spending millions of euro plastering the country with posters and pamphlets warning of the horrors of immigration - leaves a large question mark over his ability to mobilise the masses. On the other, there is little serious opposition, save for the far-right Jobbik party that has already called for the PM's head, to push that point.
“These are great results. 9 out of 10 people voted in favour of Hungary, for the right of sovereign decision-making. (…) This weapon will be strong enough even in Brussels,” Orban claimed at a press conference at which only cameras were admitted, according to 444.hu.
The PM did not mention that the low turnout made the referendum invalid, but was careful to note that more people voted against the EU quotas than in favour of joining the bloc in another invalid referendum in 2004. While that must surely be intended as a hint at a possible 'Huxit,' as one of the largest recipients of EU funds, Hungary will be in no rush to follow the UK out of the bloc, despite Orban's rhetoric for his domestic audience.
“Brussels or Budapest, that was the question, and the people said Budapest,” Orban told supporters at a later rally in Budapest, according to AFP. “I will propose to change the constitution (which) shall reflect the will of the people. We will make Brussels understand that it cannot ignore the will of Hungarian voters.”
The 3.3mn that voted “no” in the referendum were similar in number to those that supported Fidesz and Jobbik at the 2014 general election, in spite of Orban’s earlier claims that the poll on immigration was a "national issue” and beyond party politics. Fidesz' failure to mobilise more voters, however, is no threat to the government’s stability.
"Although the referendum is invalid, the high proportion of "no" votes makes it possible for the government to evaluate this failure as a victory,” analysts at Political Capital write in a note. In terms of party politics, they assert, Fidesz has suffered merely a short-term defeat.
That is thanks to the disorganization and weakness of the mainstream opposition. Without any significant challenge from the centre or left, it is the far-right Jobbik that is filling the void to lead the calls against the government.
“Orban has scored a huge own goal,” Gabor Vona, president of Jobbik, insisted according to MTI, calling for the resignation of the PM. That may throw up an interesting debate; Fidesz will likely need support from Jobbik to make any constitutional change, having lost its two-thirds majority last year.
The Jobbik leader also sought to hit at Orban's personal ambition, which after being hailed by the populist parties popping up across the continent is clearly to expand his influence at a European level. “Brussel only cares about the validity of the referendum, and the results will be used against Hungary,” Vona claimed. Orban’s "European political weight has just dramatically collapsed,” he added.
With Brussels having already largely abandoned the idea of refugee quotas, and the referendum's lack of any binding legality, it was already questionable what tangible impact Hungary’s poll might have internationally. Still, Orban clearly seeks to raise his profile as a heavyweight leading efforts to "reform" an EU in which populists have been building their platforms through the crises blighting the bloc.
With that in mind, and a domestic electorate with which they need to shore up support, the PM and his cohorts have clearly decided to push the claim of "victory" to the extreme. “Today is a sweeping victory for all those who reject the EU’s mandatory quotas (…), and who believe that the foundations of a strong European Union can only be the strong nation states,” said Gergely Gulyas deputy head of Fidesz.
Framing an invalid vote as victory, however, is likely to be more difficult in Brussels than at home. “The invalid vote is a failure for Viktor Orban on the international stage (…) and it is unsuitable for exerting political pressure” Political Capital notes.
The results could also “alert” populists in other Visegrad countries, they add. “Although the V4 countries have a common position regarding the quota system (…) leaders of the Visegrad countries had already tried to distance themselves from Orban following the EU summit in Bratislava. This process is likely to continue.”