The ruling Fidesz party succeeded in spreading its anti-immigrant message among a receptive population, say opposition figures.
Hungarian opposition celebrations of the low turnout that invalidated Sunday’s referendum on refugees may prove premature, as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán stands to reap longer-term benefits from a campaign that tapped into deep mistrust of Europe and migrants.
While the result doesn’t give Orbán a clear mandate to reject European Union quotas for accepting refugees, the referendum campaign provided his Fidesz Party with an opportunity to play on widespread concern among the population about the issue and underpin its support domestically.
Kinga Göncz, a former Hungarian foreign minister and ex-MEP, said if anything the result would embolden Orbán in his vision of himself as a European leader. “His ambition is now beyond Hungary,” she said, adding that the prime minister felt he had the backing of “extreme right-wing parties all over Europe.”
On the surface, the opposition succeeded in its calls to boycott the vote or invalidate ballots, with the result that just 40 percent of the electorate cast valid votes, sinking to 34 percent in the capital, according to the National Election Office. Hungarian law requires over half the electorate to participate to make a referendum result valid.
The anti-refugee campaign “allowed Fidesz to stop the erosion in its popularity and manage to boost its position,” said Bálint Magyar, an expert on Hungary’s political system and former minister. It allowed the government to reach out to “non-Fidesz voters who are sensitive” to the question of refugees, said Magyar.
This is reflected in opinion polls. Support for Fidesz rose when the anti-refugee rhetoric began to intensify in August to prepare for the referendum, reaching 47 percent among Hungarians who expressed a party preference, versus July’s 43 percent, according to the Republikon Institute. Far-right party Jobbik, in second place, was way behind with just 18 percent support.
Orbán was appealing to what polls show are very negative views among the Hungarian public of minorities such as the Roma and Jewish communities, which have extended to Muslims since the refugee crisis began. In a Pew Research Center survey from early 2016, 72 percent of Hungarians polled said they disliked Muslims, 64 percent had a negative view of the Roma and 32 percent regarded Jews unfavorably.
“The sole purpose of this referendum initiated by Orbán himself is to invoke fear and strengthen anti-EU sentiment among Hungarians,” argued Ferenc Gyurcsány, who served as prime minister from 2004-2009 and now heads the opposition Democratic Coalition. “My biggest fear is that the government’s propaganda will outlive the incumbents and fear and hate will stay in Hungarians’ minds and hearts long after.”
Many people casting their votes cited fear — of foreigners, societal change and the negative economic impact of immigration — as the motive for doing Orbán’s bidding and answering “No” to the referendum question: “Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?”
“I want to live in freedom, I don’t want to have to fear anybody,” said one voter in central Budapest, who didn’t want to be identified. “I don’t want Muslim hordes here … why would anyone vote for migrants when we don’t have anything to eat?” said another. There were even those who believed Orbán should go much further: “They should just shoot all those terrorists already with machine guns,” said an older voter.
The opposition was not alone in declaring victory. With 98 percent of votes cast supporting the government, Orbán said “nine out of 10 people today voted for Hungary, for Hungary’s right to independent decision-making.” He made it clear he will ignore the low turnout and submit a constitutional amendment regarding refugees over the coming days.
A constitutional amendment is necessary “to satisfy the public,” said Zsolt Németh, a lawmaker and founding member of Fidesz. “Hungary should be able to decide about basic questions of migration, and the Hungarian parliament should maintain its sovereignty on this subject.”
For some in the opposition, the success of the boycott was a signal that despite six years of Fidesz rule, the government’s disproportionate influence over the media and the millions of euros it spent on an anti-refugee campaign were not enough to drive Orbán’s message home.
“Most people in Hungary agree that we don’t want any large number of immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, but this is not the issue,” said Géza Jeszenszky, who was foreign minister in the first democratically-elected government after the fall of communism. “Many people were able to see through the unprecedented level of propaganda which the government side came up with.”
But while the referendum demonstrated that a majority of Hungarians either oppose Orbán’s stance on refugees, or don’t agree with him strongly enough to actually vote, it also illustrated very clearly how deep the anti-refugee and Euroskeptic sentiment runs among the population.
The opposition looks unlikely to be able to capitalize on the success of the boycott, said Magyar, adding that supporters of Fidesz’s anti-refugee rhetoric might get the impression “that the opposition has no alternative suggestions” to address the refugee crisis.
For the refugees who were nominally the subject of the controversial referendum, however, the vote was of little consequence. Hungary’s doors are already largely closed, and integration for those few asylum-seekers who get legal status in Hungary is a very remote possibility.
Samim, a young Afghan who has been in Hungary for 10 months and is living at Bicske refugee camp outside of Budapest as he awaits a decision on his asylum request, was unaware ahead of Sunday’s referendum that his future was being put to the vote. “I heard there will be an election but I don’t know what it’s about,” he said.