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Hungary Prepares for Controversial Migrant Vote

  • Heather Murdock

Hungarians are preparing to vote on a referendum that supporters believe will prevent new migrants from being compelled to settle in their country, Sept. 30, 2016. (VOA/Rudolf Karancsi/Képszerkesztőség)

Hungarians are preparing to vote on a referendum that supporters believe will prevent new migrants from being compelled to settle in their country, Sept. 30, 2016. (VOA/Rudolf Karancsi/Képszerkesztőség)

The question that will be posed to Hungarian voters in a referendum Sunday is relatively simple. Paraphrased: Should the European Union be allowed to tell them how many migrants they must take in, despite the wishes of their elected officials?

For most Hungarians, according to polls, the answer is a resounding “No.”

But for a small, vocal minority, the answer is more complex. They say xenophobia, not sovereignty, is the main issue.

However, despite the clear leaning of the majority, analysts say it is not certain the referendum will draw the 50 percent voter turnout needed to validate the ballot.

This billboard, by one the country’s farthest left parties, in Budapest, says, “Vote bravely. Vote ‘Yes.’” Sept. 30, 2016. (H. Murdock/VOA)

This billboard, by one the country’s farthest left parties, in Budapest, says, “Vote bravely. Vote ‘Yes.’” Sept. 30, 2016. (H. Murdock/VOA)

The Hungarian government supports the referendum, saying if the people vote no, it will give Prime Minister Viktor Orban a powerful weapon to take to the EU, proof that his population does not want Brussels to dictate migration policies.

A large influx of migrants, the government says, presents a grave security threat because Europe has failed to adequately screen new arrivals.

Some analysts say that if voters reject the EU mandate on refugees, it will chip away at EU authority and encourage the trend elsewhere. But Zoltan Kovacs, Hungarian government spokesman, says the EU has overstepped its authority and needs to be checked.

“We don’t want to take any rights from the European Union,” he said. “We believe they are taking rights away from us.”

Other supporters of the referendum say it may be a catalyst for change in the EU, and that’s a good thing.

“Europeans know this EU is at an end, so we are looking for what is the next EU,” said Zoltan Kiszelly, a government adviser and political analyst. Hungarian authorities want the EU to change policies, he added, but are not considering breaking from the union.

“There’s no such thing as 'H-exit,' ” he added, laughing. “We would be the last to go.”

At a pro-refugee rally Friday night outside Parliament, some locals waved EU flags and said challenges to EU policy should not be tied to fear of mass migration. The body represents a kind of moral authority, they said, and its wishes on this issue should be honored, at least symbolically.

The EU has mandated Hungary take in roughly 1,300 refugees, but has since stopped trying to enforce it. Hungary is also not a popular destination for refugees and other migrants because it offers little social support and can be hostile.

“I don’t want people to think this is Hungary,” said Gergo Buda, a 28-year-old economist, explaining why he came out to publicly support refugees.

Hungarians, he says, have never been uniformly against migration, despite the popularity of the referendum. “There is another Hungary,” he added.

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