Hungary's anti-migrant vote: Is it about refugees or Orbán?

Hungarians who voted Sunday overwhelmingly favored Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's policy to reject the EU plan to distribute refugees fairly across the bloc. Not enough voted to validate the result, but that may not indicate a public change of heart on immigration.

AP/Vadim Ghirda
A woman walks by a poster that reads in Hungarian 'Let's send a message to Budapest, so they also understand! A stupid answer to a stupid question! Cast an invalid vote!' on Saturday in Budapest, Hungary. Though Hungarians voted overwhelmingly in favor of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's policies on migrants in Sunday's referendum, not enough voters went to the polls, invalidating the result.

Ever since Budapest’s Keleti train station became the epicenter of Europe’s migration crisis last fall, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has led the charge among former communist states of the European Union to reject Muslim refugees in Europe.

He sought to shore up that position – and his role as provocateur to Brussels and its aims to relocate asylum-seekers fairly across the bloc – in a referendum on Sunday. But while those who voted overwhelmingly rejected the EU’s redistribution scheme, not enough voters turned out to cast ballots, invalidating the results.

Mr. Orbán is trying to spin the referendum as a victory. But the vote also revealed a majority who disagree with him – either his position on migration or his leadership itself – or do not believe that the question of migration is sufficiently important to head to polls.

While Hungary is often cast off as simply anti-migrant, the vote shows a nation whose views are far from monolithic, and that will ultimately make it harder for Orbán to offer a simplistic message of dissent in Europe.

“This outcome will make it harder for Orbán to stand up for his immigration policy in the EU, because EU leaders can say, ‘Orbán, now what do you want? The referendum was invalid,’” says Attila Tibor Nagy, a political analyst in Budapest at the Center for Fair Political Analysis.

Unpopular position...?

That will come as a relief both to the powers in the EU facing an existential crisis after Britain opted to leave the union in June, and amid the rise of right-wing populists, who are peddling an anti-EU message that has gained a deeper foothold during the refugee crisis.

Among the most provocative have been the Visegrad countries: Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Czech Republic. Leaders have sued the bloc over the mandatory relocation plan. They have said outright that they would take in Christian refugees but not Muslim ones, and butted heads with Brussels and particularly German Chancellor Angela Merkel, arguing that migration should be a national, not surpranational, issue.

Orbán led the group when he sealed Hungary’s southern border and militarized it with police and the Army last year. His referendum campaign explicitly linked the refugee crisis to Europe’s terrorism threat. “Did you know? Since the beginning of the migration crisis more than 300 people died in terrorist attacks in Europe,” read one advertisement.

The vote required 50 percent turnout in this country of just under 10 million, but only 3.25 million went to the polls. Nonetheless, Orbán called it a victory Sunday night, pointing out that more Hungarians voted yesterday than they did in the referendum about joining the EU in 2003.

With almost all votes counted, more than 98 percent rejected the EU plan. "Thirteen years after a large majority of Hungarians voted at a referendum to join the European Union, today Hungarians made their voices heard again in a European issue," Orbán said. "We have achieved an outstanding result, because we have surpassed the outcome of the accession referendum.”

A counter-campaign by the Two-Tailed Dog Party, a registered political party of street artists that parodies the ruling elite, put up their own spoof posters. “Did you know? Hungarians see more UFOs in their lifetime than migrants,” read one. Opposition parties urged voters to abstain from the vote. But no party came out supporting the EU’s relocation plan.

... Or unpopular leader?

Mr. Nagy says the referendum does not show a turnabout on migration: He sees Hungarian society as decidedly anti-migrant. But he believes voters stayed home because they didn’t want to contribute to Orbán’s influence as prime minister. They also may have been over-saturated by the campaign blitz. And he says that perhaps they don’t see migration as a sufficiently big enough problem in their daily lives.

While hundreds of thousands of migrants crossed through Hungary last year – many of them barred from entering Keleti station on their westward march, which ultimately led Ms. Merkel to welcome them – the numbers have plummeted this year. That is due to many factors, including the EU-Turkey plan to dissuade refugees from coming, as well as the walls Hungary erected. Under the relocation plan, Hungary was only to accept 1,294 asylum-seekers.

“I can imagine that the vast majority of people could feel that this problem was not so big in their everyday lives, because migration is not seen so directly in Hungary,” Nagy says.

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