An Invalid Vote of Consequence: The Results of Hungary’s Refugee Referendum

By Dora Illei

On Sunday, the Hungarian people voted on the E.U. plan to relocate 1,294 refugees to their country, part of a larger plan to relocate 160,000 refugees across member states. Hungarians voted overwhelmingly against refugee resettlement, with 98 percent rejecting E.U. mandates, but less than a majority of eligible voters participated, rendering the vote invalid.

In the months leading up to the vote, the Hungarian government and the ruling Fidesz party led an expansive anti-refugee and anti-E.U. propaganda campaign to urge 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?”

Even if the vote had been valid, the legal significance would have been questionable given the vague language of the referendum and the structure of EU law. The government spent as much as 50 million euros on the campaign, which, according to some polls, caused an increase of xenophobia in Hungary due to its ‘Brussels or Budapest’ framing and association of migrants with terrorism.

Each side has framed the outcome to their liking. Leader of the opposition Democratic Coalition Ferenc Gyurcsany claimed the low turnout shows that “the people do not support the government,” while analyst at Policy Solutions Tamas Boros noted that Prime Minister Victor Orban “went too far and overestimated how much people’s opinions are transformed into votes.”

Orban, however, has declared the referendum a success. At a news conference in Budapest Orban argued that Hungary had achieved “a sweeping victory for all those who reject the relocation plan, for those who believe that only nation states should remain and for those who believe in democracy.” He also stated that “a valid referendum is always better than an invalid one, but the legal consequences will be the same.”

The strong backing of Orban’s position may give him more power among EU leaders as he capitalizes on the anti-establishment sentiments of citizens across the continent. Domestically, the referendum could help solidify the Fidesz party’s lead over its opposition, while “[diverting] attention from…really searing domestic problems,” according to senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Andras Racz.

The results of the referendum, as well as the campaign leading up to it, have revealed how racism and xenophobia have been normalized and integrated into the mainstream in Hungary. Marta Pardavi, the co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, describes the campaign as an attempt “to portray migrants as rapists and terrorists who can only be stopped if we put up walls to protect our Christian identity,” and that it has “created a great opportunity for racists.” The campaign, along with government recruitment of 3,000 ‘border hunters’ and UNHCR allegations of excessive force against migrants by Hungarian police, reveal an environment hostile towards migrants and outsiders.

The United States should commit to aiding the integration of refugees in Europe, countering the xenophobic views expressed by Hungarian politicians and other EU leaders, and sharing in hosting refugees. The United States should also bolster funding for human rights activists and civil society organizations working to fight xenophobia and urge all countries to respect the human rights of refugees. Though Hungary has placed itself at the head of the anti-refugee campaign with this referendum, the issue of xenophobia, racism and islamophobia plagues many European nations, and should be addressed across the board.


Published on October 4, 2016


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