MORAHALM, HUNGARY - When the polls opened in this quiet town Sunday, voters trickled in, many happy to report that they voted "no" because they do not want refugees or migrants moving back in.
“I voted, and I voted no to migrants,” said Szucs Istavanne, a retired housewife with two children. “There are enough people here, so forgive us, world. We are not a nation of that hates foreigners, but this country should be left to itself.”
When the polls closed on Hungary’s controversial referendum later in the day, turnout appeared to be lower than the 50 percent minimum needed to validate the ballot. But ruling party officials still hailed the vote as a “victory for people” who reject European Union mandates over the wishes of elected national officials. But some analysts say the ballot is a stark reminder of how anti-migrant sentiment is chipping away at the strength of the European Union.
The referendum asked Hungarians if they would accept European Union migrant quotas, obliging the country to take in nearly 1,300 of the 160,000 asylum seekers stranded in Italy and Greece.
Here in Morahalm, near Hungary’s border with Serbia, the autumn of 2015 saw masses of people camping out in tents, causing tensions between residents and refugees.
“Our council and our city of Morahalm was continuously involved in the migration crisis last year for 10 months,” explained Csanyi Laszlo, the Deputy Mayor of Morahalm since 1998. “All of our beautiful public spaces were occupied by those migrants. They put up shelters, they left garbage everywhere and by the end the people did not feel safe.”
Eventually, the deputy mayor called on local law enforcement to act as a buffer between refugees and residents.
“The migrants are just so different from us,” added Istavanne outside her polling precinct.
But even in Morahalm, where emotions run high on the issue, voter turnout appears to have been low, and by law 50 percent of eligible voters must cast valid ballots for the referendum to pass. Officials say it will take a few days to count all the ballots, and while “no” votes are a clear majority, it is unlikely enough people voted.
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Throughout the day, the government called, texted and emailed voters urging them to “avoid the risk” and vote “no.”
Even if the measure does pass, it would be largely symbolic, as the European Union has backed off requiring Hungary to take in more asylum seekers.
Several kilometers away, at one of Hungary’s few remain migrant camps, only about 100 people remain, awaiting deportation. That’s about 20 percent of its capacity, according to local security guards. Only a few months ago detainees protested overcrowded conditions.
And the very fact that Hungary’s small population of asylum seekers is a top political priority is a sign of other problems, according to Goran Buldioski, the co-director of the Open Society Initiative for Europe.
“The migration has not been an issue, and has [now] been brought as a mainstream issue,” Buldioski explained. “And the very referendum and the execution of the referendum is an indication of the decline of the democratic standards in the country.”
And as Hungary waits for official results, he said, the rise of far-right politicians in other parts Europe, growing xenophobia among the populations and the eroding power of the European Union is increasingly a concern for the future.
“Europe has been caught unprepared about the influx of refugees last year,” he said. “This is unfortunate because with the Syrian war that has been going on for a while and the problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is not from yesterday.”