On Sunday, Hungarians went to the polls to say whether they agree to let the European Union redistribute migrants in Hungary without the consent of the national parliament. The overwhelming majority of those who cast ballots rejected the EU plan on the migrant relocation scheme, but the turnout failed to reach the necessary 50 percent for the vote to be considered valid.
Domestic gains and losses
"I think that from the government's perspective it was a tactical mistake to frame this as a referendum rather than a national consultation, and this was made worse by insisting that turnout would be high enough to make it valid," Gabor Gyori, a senior analyst at Policy Solutions, a political research institute based in Brussels and Budapest, stated.
The expert reminded that the ruling Fidesz party turned out to be the hostage of its own amendments made to the referendum rules – the government has set a very high bar for the validity of a referendum out of concerns that referendums may be used as a political tool against the authorities.
Nick Sitter, a professor of public policy at the Central European University in Budapest, argued that despite the low turnout Fidesz still managed to achieve one of its major goals, that is rallying support for the ruling party, partly beating the opposition right-wing Jobbik party by playing on its traditional and well-established anti-migrant field.
Jobbik, the third largest force in the Hungarian parliament, was the only party that supported the idea to rebuff Brussels on quota scheme, though opposed holding the referendum as a costly and risky process. Instead the party suggested amending the constitution by the lawmakers, which could have been easily achieved with Jobbik's support.
"Indeed this was a monumental waste of money from the perspective of the state and the public interest. But as an exercise in party mobilization of support it might well be good value for money," Sitter said.
According to Human Right Watch calculations, the state-sponsored campaign, that included thousands of billboard and TV ads warning of a migrant menace prior to the referendum, cost Hungarian taxpayers the equivalent of over $18 million, or approximately $13,500 per asylum seeker Hungary has been asked to take.
The other aim of the referendum was, according to Sitter, "to put the democratic opposition in a difficult spot by giving them a dilemma between supporting the government or supporting increased immigration." That did not work as almost all the opposition parties, widely supported by numerous human rights groups, called for boycotting the vote or at least spoiling the ballots.
In contrast, after the vote the opposition, including the Jobbik party, came with united calls for Orban to resign in light of the referendum failure. Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, who now leads the opposition party Democratic Coalition, said that Orban who made an all-or-nothing of the referendum had failed in terms of politics and public law.
Orban's efforts on EU stage
While "domestic party political considerations were paramount in Orban's efforts to push for this referendum," he was also trying to prove his strong position on the EU stage, Gyori stated.
"He is of course also trying to bolster his visibility at the European level and trying to establish himself as a chief spokesperson for the anti-immigrant right-wing in Europe," the expert said.
In early September, tough stance on mass migration already brought Orban a title "Man of the Year," which he was awarded at an economic conference in the Polish city of Krynica. Last year, the award was given to former Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who now leads the ruling Law and Justice party and is also well-known for his anti-EU rhetoric and harsh anti-refugee stance.
On Monday, reacting to the referendum outcome, Orban claimed victory, calling the results "outstanding" and saying that in choice between Brussels and Budapest "people chose Budapest."
Brussels' reaction was rather quiet, with the EU authorities simply saying that the referendum would be noted despite being declared void.
"Some think that a valid result might have strengthened Orban’s hand, but with such a blatantly biased referendum question the whole exercise could well have been dismissed as an expensive propaganda stunt even if the referendum result had been valid," Sitter said.
Nevertheless, the referendum — even despite being officially invalid — has added some skepticism within the European Union.
On Sunday, speaking to German daily Welt am Sonntag, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said the bloc should stop clinging to its troubled plan to redistribute migrants, calling the plan "totally unrealistic." Kurz added that EU countries' disagreement over the plan could threaten "the cohesion of the entire European Union."
One of the deputies of the German far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) party Heiner Merz echoed this statement, declaring the outcome of Hungary's referendum a clear sign that the country "defended itself against foreign domination."
"Each national state should have the right to determine for themselves whether and how many refugees it receives," Merz, a member of a regional parliament's Committee for European and International Affairs, said in Tuesday’s press release.
He pointed out that when Hungary voted on the issue of the EU accession in 2003, the turnout was 45.6 percent and no one at that time questioned the validity of the referendum.