BUDAPEST - Headlines in Hungary’s newspapers on Monday read “The Referendum has Failed” and “The Country has said No.”
While about 98 percent who voted said "no," from newspaper stands to parliament there was a distinct disconnect.
Speaking to the members, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban called rejection of the migrant quota referendum an “outstanding and overwhelming” victory, even though voter turnout was not high enough to validate the ballot.
He asked the parliament to consider changing the constitution "in the spirit of the referendum."
"With modesty and moderation I say: Hungarians yesterday made history,” he said. “With an overwhelming victory of ‘no’ votes, Hungary has won.
Despite the proclamation, the referendum, in which more than three million of Hungary’s 10 million people voted “no” to the European Union’s power to mandate refugee quotas over the wishes of their elected officials, technically failed. The law here required a 50 percent turnout for a valid result and only about 40 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
The vote has no legal weight within the EU or in Hungary, but the prime minister said he will use the voice of the people to push reform.
“The result of this referendum will be a strong weapon in Brussels,” he explained.
Yet in the papers and on the streets, the ballot appears to have failed. Ferencz Tiborne is a retired banker who voted ‘no.’
“I was sad that we didn’t reach the turnout needed for the ballot to pass,” she said. “If people knew how important this was, more would have come.”
The referendum, while controversial in much of the world, was near certain to be rejected in parts of Hungary. Outside her polling station in Morahalm, a town where thousands of refugees and other migrants passed through in 2015, Gubicz Antalne, 85, voted “no” like the vast majority of the Hungarians who voted.
“It would be better if migrants do not come to Hungary,” she said outside her polling place.
But the majority of voters chose not to cast ballots, with many saying the referendum was nonsensical and expensive, costing tens of millions of dollars in government advertising.
“I won’t vote because the decision has been made,” explained Havanscak Karoly, a 37-year-old construction worker with three children in his home town of Nyergesujfalu, a northern town that has seen almost no migrants in recent years. If the government wants to reject EU mandates, he said, it would do so with or without the peoples’ votes.
“Migrants don’t want to stay here anyway,” he added.
Critics say the referendum played on the fears of the population and government advertising intensified those fears, implying migrants would bring crime and scoop up jobs.
“It was a very dirty campaign,” said Csaba Dudas, an organizer for the Two-Tailed Dog Party, which countered the government campaign with humorous billboards and signs urging people to cast invalid votes.
“Give a stupid answer to a stupid question,” read one sign seen across the country.
A year ago, the influx of hundreds of thousands of people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia to Europe was known as the ‘refugee crisis.’ Today, it is more commonly called the ‘migrant crisis.’
The new vocabulary of choice is telling of the international mood, as the waves of sympathy in 2015 have, in many places, been replaced by waves of fear and anger after terror attacks were blamed on the crisis.
This fear has also led to a sharp rise in support for the far right in Europe, which often uses xenophobia as a cornerstone of policy-making, leading to Brexit and other cracks in the strength of the European Union.
From the beginning of the crisis, the Hungarian government says it has tried to follow established European refugee regulations, which call for asylum seekers to register in the first country they land in. In 2015, masses on their way to wealthy countries like Germany, Sweden and Finland made it through Hungary, however, under pressure from the international community, humanitarian activists within Hungary, and the large crowds of people clamoring to get through.
With stronger boarder controls and strict policies, Hungary is now able to limit the amount of people allowed to pass through to 30 per day and is deporting asylum seekers who have already registered in other countries.
And while humanitarian groups across the globe complain Hungary is not doing enough to help those fleeing war and crushing poverty, the government holds firm, saying it is following EU agreements, while other countries ignore the rules.
“What we see on the borders of Hungary and ... of the European Union is completely unacceptable and should be stopped,” said Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs. “Nobody is keeping the rules, apart from Hungary.”