Is Hungary's Referendum Result a Victory or a Defeat for the Prime Minister?

Nearly 98 percent of voters supported Viktor Orban’s call to reject an EU-mandated quota on migrants, but the turnout was below the 50-percent threshold that would make the results legally binding.

Vadim Ghirda / AP

NEWS BRIEF The vote by Hungarians to reject an EU plan for a bloc-wide migrant quota is being labeled both as an overwhelming victory for Prime Minister Viktor Orban as well as a humiliating defeat for him. So which is it?

The EU plan to redistribute 160,000 asylum-seekers across the bloc would have resulted in 1,294 people being resettled in Hungary. But Orban strongly opposed the plan, challenged it in court, and called for a referendum. With nearly all the ballots counted in Sunday’s vote, 98 percent of voters supported Orban’s call to reject the EU plan. But turnout was 43 percent—well short of the 50 percent needed for the results to become legally binding. Orban was undeterred, however. He said he would amend Hungary’s constitution to make the decision binding. He said that though a “valid [referendum] is always better than an invalid [referendum],” the result would give him enough support to tell the EU Hungary “should not be forced to accept … people we don’t want to live with.”

But that may not be easy. Orban had made the issue the centerpiece of his campaign against the EU. He has presented the newcomers as a threat to his country’s European identity, prompting accusations he was xenoophobic. Last year, he said not only would he like “Europe preserved for the Europeans ...[but] we want to preserve a Hungarian Hungary.” The government spent millions on a campaign urging citizens to vote no to the 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?” In the end, it wasn’t enough. Despite his public optimism after the vote, the shortfall means Orban can’t force the EU to rethink its plan.

Ferenc Gyurcsany, the leader of the opposition Democratic Coalition, said the low turnout showed “the people do not support the government. And this is good.”

The turnout should ease the pressure on Germany and other EU countries that—in the face of their own domestic opposition to the asylum-seekers—had pushed for an EU-wide distribution plan in order to ease the overcrowding in migrant-holding centers in Greece and Italy.

But the overwhelming nature of the results among those who did vote means the opposition toward the asylum-seekers, those European leaders who are welcoming of them, and toward the EU itself are unlikely to diminish anytime soon. Those sentiments are prevalent among many of the Central and Eastern European members of the EU, and are also gaining ground in places like Germany, home since 2015 to the largest number of asylum-seekers in Europe.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, perhaps the migrants’ greatest champion in Europe, has felt the brunt of the anger of German voters, losing ground in local elections this summer to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). In an interview published Sunday, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said the EU should scrap its plan, telling Welt am Sonntag the plan is “totally unrealistic.” And Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who has also challenged the EU’s quota system, has said his country won’t accept a “single Muslim migrant.”

Hungary’s referendum may not have been conclusive, but it ensures the issue of asylum-seekers in Europe will remain controversial until at least next year when national elections are being held in Germany and France, and possibly in 2018, as well, when Hungarians vote in parliamentary elections.