The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has failed to convince a majority of his population to vote in a referendum on closing the door to refugees, rendering the result invalid and undermining his campaign for a cultural counter-revolution within the European Union.
More than 98% of participants in Sunday’s referendum sided with Orbán by voting against the admission of refugees to Hungary, allowing him to claim an “outstanding” victory. But more than half of the electorate stayed at home, rendering the process constitutionally null and void.
Orbán himself put a positive spin on the low turnout. He argued that while “a valid [referendum] is always better than an invalid [referendum]” the extremely high proportion of no-voters still gave him a mandate to go to Brussels next week “to ensure that we should not be forced to accept in Hungary people we don’t want to live with”.
He argued that the poll would encourage a wave of similar votes across the EU. “We are proud that we are the first,” he said.
The result, though, gives potential respite to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and EU officials in Brussels, whose comparatively progressive refugee policies and liberal political outlook had been under sustained assault from Orbán in recent months.
Internationally, Orbán’s referendum was seen as a plebiscite on not just the EU’s refugee-sharing quota–which would see just 1,294 refugees resettled in Hungary from Greece and Italy–but on the role of nation state and the future of liberal democracy within the EU.
Presenting himself as the voice of the European masses, Orbán had called for a cultural rebellion within the EU, praised aspects of illiberal strongman leadership that are anathema to the EU’s professed values and opposed attempts to share responsibility for refugees between EU states.
The refugee referendum was an attempt to build support for this vision and Orbán hoped that a strong turnout would lead to a series of copycat votes across the continent. But despite the biggest and most divisive advertising campaign in Hungarian history, Orbán failed to entice enough voters to the ballot box.
Early results suggested that about 43.9% of the Hungarian electorate participated, significantly less than the 50% threshold needed to validate the referendum.
This could slow Orbán’s political momentum within Europe, said András Bíró-Nagy, a former EU official, and a fellow at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. “How can he win a cultural counter-revolution in Europe if he can’t get a valid referendum result on his strongest issue in his own country?” Bíró-Nagy asked.
The deputy head of Orbán’s party, Fidesz, also framed the vote as a triumph. “Today is a sweeping victory for all those who reject the EU’s mandatory, unlimited quotas,” said Gergely Gulyás. “It is a sweeping victory for all those who believe that the foundations of a strong European Union can only be the strong nation states.”
But Fidesz’s critics said the party had exaggerated the result. Viktor Szigetvári, the leader of Együtt, a liberal opposition party, said: “In his speech, the prime minister failed to recognise the reality. The majority of Hungarians stayed away from the polls and what’s been left behind is a divided country. To heal this, we need a change in government.”
Analysts said that the low turnout was ultimately underwhelming for a man who bases his arguments on their popular appeal and whose toxic advertising campaign was five times larger than the next biggest in Hungarian history. Of Hungary’s 20,000 advertising hoardings, 5,888 were used for the referendum campaign–considerably more than the 1,200 used by a tobacco firm in the mid-1990s, according to research by Transparency International.
Csaba Tóth, strategy director at the Republikon thinktank, said: “It’s a disappointment for him, but it doesn’t make it impossible for him to claim it as a victory; there are still more than three million people voting for him. But expectations were higher. Despite the very distorted media landscape, and despite all this advertising, it was only enough to mobilise voters from Fidesz and Jobbik,” a far-right opposition party.
Liberal opposition politicians argued that the referendum was an attempt to distract from Orbán’s domestic failures and told their supporters to boycott the vote in order to render it invalid. Questions were raised over the amount of state funds that were used to pay for referendum adverts in government-friendly media outlets or on hoardings owned by government allies.
The government denies any wrongdoing and says the adverts were placed in a “completely transparent” manner. But Transparency International and other academic researchers queried the process.
Attila Bátorfy, a researcher on media affairs at the Central European University, said: “Channelling state funds to media outlets that are owned by oligarchs allied to the governments and have viewership that is lower their competitors–what’s the problem with that? It’s using state funds to prop up the government’s private media backers, for the purposes of drumming up support for the government’s position.”
Government critics condemned the divisive tone of Orbán’s campaign. He and his colleagues frequently linked refugees to terrorism and relentlessly plugged their message, even during half-time advertising breaks at the European football championships in June.
Zsuzsanna Vajna, a 79-year-old Holocaust survivor who remembers being made to walk up and down the banks of the Danube while Hungarian Nazis shot other Jews into the river, said the stigmatisation of refugees reminded her of the incitement against Jews during her childhood.
“It very much feels like the atmosphere in the 30s before the second world war,” Vajna said. “In the 1930s, we were in a very bad economic situation. People had to be blamed, and then it was the Jews. And that’s what I’m reminded of when I read the Hungarian government’s propaganda. It’s very dangerous. Because it can contaminate all of Europe.”