Hungarians will vote in an Oct. 2 referendum on the resettlement of refugees, an issue that’s tearing at the fabric of the European Union and is the cornerstone of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s agenda. While the bloc’s leaders have sought to demonstrate unity, the vote highlights divisions that have only been amplified by Britain’s decision to leave the EU. It’s also an opportunity for Orban, one of the staunchest opponents of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy, to showcase the popularity of his anti-immigration approach, which has resonated not only at home but across Eastern Europe.
1. Why a referendum on resettlement?
There’s no specific proposal voters are deciding on. Rather, the vote is a bid by Orban for popular affirmation of his anti-refugee stance. The question on the ballot is: "Do you want the European Union to be able to order the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without parliament’s consent?” For Orban, the referendum is helping him keep the refugee crisis on voters’ minds, now that the flow of migrants has slowed to a trickle following more than a million arrivals in the EU last year. A victory on Sunday would give him political momentum ahead of the 2018 parliamentary elections, where he wants to win a third consecutive term.
2. Is there much doubt about the outcome?
Not about which way the vote will go, but about whether the anti-refugee vote will clear the 50 percent turnout threshold that would make it legally binding. According to a Republikon poll published on Sept. 15, 73 percent of eligible voters will support the government with a “no” vote, compared with 4 percent backing for “yes.” Some opposition groups are urging voters to stay home or spoil their ballot. But the most popular opposition party, the radical nationalist group Jobbik, is supporting the "no” vote. And the Republikon poll found that 48 percent of voters said they were committed to voting and another 23 percent will probably participate. A lopsided victory would give Orban the ammunition to claim public support, even if it fails the turnout requirement. Very low voter participation, on the other hand, could indicate a lack of enthusiasm about the government’s core message.
3. What impact will the vote have?
Not much directly. The referendum by itself won’t change policy. But Orban has said that the bigger the margin of victory, the more likely it is that he’d succeed in preventing the EU from forcing Hungary to take in refugees by way of mandatory national quotas. The government has floated the idea of trying for an EU treaty change to tip the balance of power toward national governments from the bloc’s Brussels-based executive. At home, a strong showing would allow the Hungarian premier to fortify what he calls an “illiberal state,” modeled on Russia and Turkey. It might also help him fend off EU objections to steps he’s taken to consolidate his power since gaining an unprecedented two-thirds legislative majority in 2010, such as rewriting the constitution.
4. Why are Hungarians so opposed to admitting refugees?
Orban had already struck a chord by playing on people’s fears even before Europe’s biggest wave of refugees since World War II reached the country’s southern border. Unlike Merkel, who’s trying to convince Germans to show solidarity, the Hungarian premier linked immigration with terrorism, warned that refugees threatened local jobs and that Europe’s Christian identity was at risk. He built a fence to repel migrants and spared no expense to hammer the message home through billboard campaigns and an increasingly obedient state media empire.
The Reference Shelf
- A Bloomberg View column on why the referendum "is a textbook example of voter manipulation."
- An article explaining why Hungary’s maverick leader took the unusual step of endorsingDonald Trump for the U.S. presidency.
- A 2015 Businessweek profile of Orban as "Europe’s New Strongman."