The Referendum in Hungary: “A Clear Foreign Policy Debacle and a Temporary Domestic Setback for the Government”

 2016 Hungarian Referendum. Posters of the government in Zichyújfalu, Hungary

Hungary’s controversial referendum on binding EU refugee quotas has failed due to insufficient voter participation. Only 40.4 percent of eligible voters cast valid ballots according to election officials. A successful referendum would have required voter participation of over 50 percent. 98.3 percent of valid ballots cast (representing roughly 3.2 million voters) were against the EU quotas, under which asylum seekers are to be distributed uniformly among EU member states, while 6.3 percent of ballots cast were invalid.

The wording of the referendum question was as follows: “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?”

Silja Schultheis: Mr Hunyadi, with this referendum Viktor Orbán has asked the Hungarian people de facto to call into question the legitimacy of the EU’s decision last fall to resettle refugees from Greece and Italy on the basis of binding quotas. Hungary filed suit against this decision at the European Court of Justice, but what was Orbán’s aim in calling the referendum? After all, national referendums on EU decisions are not legally binding anyway...

Der Politologe Bulcsú Hunyadi arbeitet in Budapest für den Think Tank Political Capital
Bulcsú Hunyadi: Orbán wanted to achieve two objectives with the referendum. Domestically, the referendum was called with the intent of keeping immigration at the top of the political agenda. This is the issue that can win over the most voters for the government – including non-partisan voters, Jobbik voters and voters from the left-wing opposition parties. At the European level, the referendum aimed to showcase the strong support for Orbán’s protest against the EU quota system, to strengthen Orbán’s position in his European power struggle, and to give a new impetus to the government’s dispute with the EU.

Orbán had hoped the referendum would strengthen his position within the EU in the dispute over the quota system and set an example for right-wing populist parties in Europe, as he expects that right-wing populist and Eurosceptic parties will play an increasingly significant role in European politics in future. His aim is to become a leading politician at the European level with the support of this camp.

Several opposition parties called for a boycott of the referendum. Most notably, the Hungarian Two-tailed Dog Party derided the plebiscite with satirical posters and called upon voters to cast spoiled ballots. It wasn’t clear until the very end whether the required voter turnout threshold would be reached. What do you think ultimately led to the fact that significantly less than half of Hungary’s 8.3 million eligible voters took part in the referendum?

It is difficult to state with certainty why so many voters stayed away from the polls. Several factors were probably at play, in particular the opposition parties’ campaign to boycott the referendum, although their options were very limited. Another factor was certainly that the aggressive tone and extent of the government campaign had gone too far for many people. In addition, Hungarians seem to be tiring of the immigration issue. The government has been pushing this topic since early 2015, even though Hungary hasn’t been directly affected by immigration since the closure of its southern border. Instead of focusing on immigration, Hungarian voters would apparently prefer that the government address other pressing issues, such as employment, education, the health care system and corruption.

The bottom line is crucial: although the overwhelming majority of Hungarians expressed their opposition to refugee quotas in opinion surveys and despite the government’s massive campaign, which exceeded in its extent all previous political campaigns in Hungary and which cost more than both the Leave and Remain campaigns in the Brexit referendum combined, the Hungarian government failed to mobilise 50 percent of eligible voters. The number of “no” votes was scarcely more than the number of votes cast for Fidesz and the extreme right-wing Jobbik party in the 2014 parliamentary elections.

Although the composition of those who voted “no” is not known in detail, we can surmise that Orbán was unable to massively mobilise voters of the opposition parties for his purposes. At the same time, the government played up expectations too high, with Fidesz politicians stressing the importance of a valid referendum until two weeks before the vote.

What does the referendum’s outcome say about the mood in Hungarian society?

According to surveys, fears and concerns over asylum seekers are widespread in the Hungarian public, and a large majority of Hungarians reject refugee quotas. According to DEREX, Political Capital’s Demand for Right-Wing Extremism index, the number of people harbouring prejudices and aversion towards strangers amounted to 54 percent in 2015. Surveys show, however, that the rise in xenophobic attitudes is at least in part a consequence of government propaganda. The government fosters in people a kind of fear of the unknown, which explains these attitudes. The fact that despite widespread xenophobia many voters did not participate in the referendum can also be understood as a passive protest against the government.

How was the outcome of the referendum received by Hungary’s democratic opposition, who had advocated for a boycott of the plebiscite?

The left and liberal opposition parties, who had called for a boycott, described the referendum’s outcome as a debacle for Orbán, as a vote of no confidence against the government, and as a victory for the opposition. Moreover, they stressed that it would now be unconstitutional for the government to plan legislative amendments on the basis of the referendum, since its outcome is invalid. A few politicians have even called for Orbán’s resignation. The non-governmental organisations that had called upon voters to cast spoiled ballots interpreted the large proportion of such ballots – 6.3 percent, in contrast to the usual rate in referendums of 0.5 to 2 percent – as a noteworthy achievement.

What does the referendum’s outcome mean for Hungary’s position within the EU? Has Hungary isolated itself by holding this referendum?

At the international or European level, an invalid referendum is naturally a bit of a fiasco for the government. And as far as the legal consequences are concerned, even a valid referendum on an EU decision would not be legally binding. An invalid referendum, by contrast, isn’t even suitable for exerting political pressure. Orbán will press on with his hard line against the quota system and EU immigration policy, however, invoking the more than three million Hungarians who reject the redistribution of refugees within the EU.

While right-wing populist and Eurosceptic politicians in Europe are celebrating Orbán and the referendum’s outcome (presumably to save face), they must come to terms with the fact that the Hungarian government, despite a costly advertising campaign and the extensive financial and legal resources available to it, failed to mobilise enough voters.

Viktor Orbán had repeatedly referred to the referendum as a “message to Brussels” and announced that he would use its outcome as a “sharp sword in the fight against EU bureaucrats”. What do you think this means in concrete terms?

Orbán will continue to pursue his hard course of confrontation with the EU and European migration policy. It’s a kind of power struggle for him; his goal is to transform the EU into an alliance of strong nation states, and to become a leading politician at the European level. Moreover, the conflict with the EU is convenient for him, because he can use it to maintain voters’ readiness to oppose a common enemy. As Orbán announced after the referendum, he intends to change the constitution. According to a statement on 4 October, Orbán wants to impose a constitutional ban on mass settlements and to require every such settlement to obtain permission from Hungarian authorities on an individual basis.

The exact wording of the new constitutional provision is not yet known [1] , but according to available information the amendment does not seem to be in violation of existing EU law. It looks much more like a symbolic domestic political act, as the concept of “mass settlement” exists neither in EU law nor in practice; the settlement of refugees is always based on an individual decision by Hungarian authorities to grant or deny asylum.

What does the referendum’s outcome mean for the domestic political situation in Hungary? Will the opposition emerge stronger in the wake of the vote?

From a domestic political point of view, the referendum was a temporary setback for the government. Even though the referendum is invalid, the governing party can still present the overwhelming proportion of “no” votes as a victory. The government’s stability is not in doubt, and thus the chances of early elections being called are minimal. Low voter turnout in the referendum could theoretically be an opportunity for opposition parties, but it’s unlikely that the opposition will suddenly be able to address problems that have existed for a long time. There remains a lack of credible political leaders, of vision, of alternative approaches to finding solutions, and of willingness to cooperate. Conflicts prevail among the individual opposition parties. The large proportion of spoiled ballots (6.3 percent) compared to other plebiscites, however, shows that a comparatively large number of voters participated in the referendum and wanted to actively demonstrate against it, as had been suggested by non-governmental organisations.

Can the referendum be viewed as a kind of first test for the 2018 parliamentary elections? Will Orbán continue to focus on the issue of immigration in the election campaign?

The outcome of the referendum cannot be equated with a possible outcome of future parliamentary elections. The number of “no” votes is not the same as the number of Fidesz voters. Nevertheless, the referendum was indeed a test for Fidesz – in particular of its potential to mobilise voters. The invalid referendum and above all the very low level of voter participation in some electoral districts could therefore have party-internal consequences. The referendum was also a milestone for the opposition. Immediately after the vote, opposition parties announced they would discuss the details of a possible cooperation agreement. It remains to be seen whether the issue of immigration still has sufficient appeal. The government will press ahead with this issue for the time being, while opposition parties will do everything they can to focus attention on other issues. Developments on the international stage, however, such as the ongoing civil war in Syria, the conflicts between the US and Russia, as well as between Turkey and the EU, play into Orbán’s hands. But the referendum will surely serve as a point of reference for both sides for quite some time.

Could Orbán’s referendum serve as a model for the other Visegrád countries?

The invalid referendum could serve as a warning to the governments of the other Visegrád countries that a policy based exclusively on an anti-immigration campaign has its limits. Although the Visegrád countries are rather similar in their struggle against the quota system, the anti-EU rhetoric of the Hungarian and Polish governments represents a harder line than the policies of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. After the EU summit in Bratislava, the prime ministers of these countries took a much more conciliatory position than Orbán, and this stance will likely continue in future. Orbán will presumably remain a major ally of pro-Russian and right-wing populist parties, whose main objective is to weaken European integration.

How do you assess EU institutions’ response to the referendum in Hungary?

From the outset, EU institutions distanced themselves from the referendum, emphasising that the outcome would in no way affect EU decision-making or the European legislative process. After the referendum, Chief Spokesperson of the European Commission Margaritis Schinas declared that the Commission would take note of the outcome and respect the democratic will of the people – of those who had voted as well as of those who had stayed home. Furthermore, Schinas reiterated the primacy of EU law over national law. This comment on the part of EU institutions is quite common. Legally speaking, this has nothing to do with the referendum, since the referendum question did not relate to an existing EU regulation, but merely to a future, potential EU regulation. The governments of other EU member states will have to grapple much more with the political consequences of the referendum, but since its outcome is invalid anyway, there’s not so much pressure to do so.

Mr Hunyadi, thank you for the interview.

If you're interested in this topic, have a look at our "Focus on Hungary" dossier.

[1] The interview with Mr Hunyadi was conducted on October 4, 2016