BUDAPEST, Hungary — Hungarians were voting Sunday in a referendum called by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government to bolster its opposition to any future, mandatory European Union quotas for accepting relocated asylum seekers.
The government’s position is expected to find wide support among voters, but 90 minutes before voting stations were to close, analysts forecast the ballot would be invalid because voter turnout would likely fail to exceed the 50-per cent-plus-one vote necessary threshold.
Nearly 8.3 million citizens were eligible to cast ballots between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. (0400-1700 GMT) on Sunday. Turnout had reached 39.9 per cent by 5:30 p.m. (1530 GMT), the National Election Office said.
Based on that figure, analysts at the Political Capital research and consultancy institute projected final turnout between 43.9 and 45.9 per cent.
The referendum asks: “Do you want the European Union to be able to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary even without the consent of Parliament?”
Orban has argued that “No” votes favour Hungary’s sovereignty and independence. If a majority of voters agree, Hungary’s parliament would pass legislation to advance the referendum’s goal whether or not turnout was sufficient for a valid election, he said.
Orban also said he would resign if the “Yes” votes won, but the vow was seen mostly as a ploy to boost turnout by drawing his critics to the polls.
While the referendum has no binding legal consequences for the EU, Orban hoped its passage would increase pressure on Brussels.
“The most important issue next week is for me to go to Brussels, hold negotiations and try with the help of this result — if the result if appropriate— achieve for it not to be mandatory to take in the kind of people in Hungary we don’t want to,” Orban said after casting his vote in an elementary school in the Buda hills.
Orban, who wants individual EU member nations to have more power in the bloc’s decision-making process, said he hopes anti-quota referendums would be held in other countries.
“We are proud that we are the first” he said. “Unfortunately, we are the only ones in the European Union who managed to have a (referendum) on the migrant issue.”
Separately from the referendum, the Orban government is also suing at the European Court of Justice because of the EU’s 2015 decision to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from overburdened Greece and Italy. Under the original plan, 1,294 asylum seekers would be moved to Hungary.
Polls show that the relentless campaign urging citizens to “send a message to Brussels” while associating migrants with terrorism has increased xenophobia in Hungary.
Several opposition and civic groups have called on citizens to stay home and boycott the vote. Others urged casting invalid ballots that would not count in the final tally, but still could be interpreted as rejecting the government’s “zero migrants” policies.
Nearly 400,000 migrants passed through Hungary last year while making their way toward Western Europe. Razor-wire fences erected on the border with Serbia and Croatia, along with new expulsion policies, have reduced the numbers significantly this year.
Last month, police reported either zero or just one migrant breaching Hungary’s border area on 13 different days.
Hungary last year rejected over 80 per cent of the asylum claims made in the country, one of the highest rates in the EU, according to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office. The country granted asylum to 508 refugees, rejected 2,917 applications and had nearly 37,000 claims still being processed.