On the evening of October 2, the Hungarian Prime Minister threw several millions of voters into the trashcan. Despite the fact that the 2016 referendum on refugee quotas turned out to be invalid, and despite the unprecedented amount of spoilt votes, Orbán claims that the entire Hungarian population is behind him in his fight against Brussels and the refugees. Granted, 92 percent of the people who participated in the (invalid) referendum voted against the refugee quotas, but is this sufficient justification for talking about a national consensus, let alone a “historic victory”?
In an extraordinarily feeble speech on Sunday evening, Orbán tried to act as if he had won a historic victory. Well, it was historic indeed, but not the way the PM tries to spin it.
For behind the triumphant rhetoric, the truth is that Hungary got tired of the hate-mongering campaign of the last one and a half years.
The turnout was extraordinarily low: only 42 percent of voters showed up at the ballot box.
Furthermore, another historic fact: never in the history of Hungarian plebiscites have so many people cast spoilt votes. (For a referendum to be considered valid, according to the legislation introduced by Fidesz itself, 50 percent of the voters must turn out, and cast valid ballots – this did not happen on Sunday.)
If we go deeper into the numbers, we find that the oppositional campaign that called for boycotting the referendum or casting invalid protest votes was successful. The traditionally left-leaning districts had an outstanding result in this respect. In the industrial town of Salgótarján, more than 6,5 percent of voters cast null votes and the turnout barely reached 40 percent. In Szeged, the only major city with a social-democratic mayor, spoilt votes reached 10 percent while the turnout remained at a lower-than-average 38 percent. Budapest as a whole also produced very low turnouts, with the traditionally more liberal or left-leaning districts leading the resistance. The inhabitants of these districts protested by casting spoilt votes in the 12-15 percentage range, while turnout remained in the 30s. Even the downtown districts with mayors belonging to the governing Fidesz fell out of line: the 8th district led by Fidesz’s communications director, and one of the regime’s most aggressive politicians witnessed a mere 31.3 percent turnout, with 12.3 percent of the votes being void.
Outside its rural heartlands, the government failed to mobilize people, and we can claim with certainty: this referendum was a miserable failure for Orbán and his regime.
Fidesz fought in vain against the migrants and the EU simultaneously, the opposition was more effective in its stealth campaign.
Also, turnout remained below the turnouts of the 1997 NATO accession referendum, the 2003 EU accession referendum and the 2008 social referendum. Orbán may claim that more people voted against the quotas than for entering the EU, but the fact remains that after a campaign with an unprecedented budget, intensity, and aggressiveness the present outcome did not figure in their worst nightmares.
This is a positive development, since it means that Hungarians are far less susceptible to hatred, inhumanity and instigation than the government would like to think.
We cannot, however, stay calm if we consider all the things with which Fidesz tried to scare everybody into participating in the referendum. We cannot stay calm if we consider how many times they scared pensioners with cutting their pensions in case the refugees come, how many times they talked about cutting housing support and social benefits, how many no-go zones they warned about, how many times they scared us with the rape of women, the terrorization of Jews and gays. A couple of days ago the head of the PM’s office spoke about retaliation in case the refugee quotas are not rejected. One can only hope that in the following days the government, facing this debacle, will not start retaliation against its own citizens.
After the most expensive, most aggressive, and most intrusive campaign of Hungarian democratic history, Fidesz and Orbán managed to mobilize a considerable number of people (around 3.2 millions) to say NO to the refugees. But only at the expense of a similarly large mass who said a clear NO to Fidesz.
After the invalid referendum the Prime Minister plans to introduce an amendment to the constitution that would rule out refugee quotas – although the shape of the amendment is still very much unclear and the idea of refugee quotas seems to be already taken off of the EU agenda. These plans to amend the constitution clearly show that Fidesz is still trying to act as the majority, despite the fact that 60 percent of Hungarian voters did not want to do anything with its hatemongering politics.
In the following days and weeks, the battle over the interpretation of the results will carry on. In a democratic country, the government would recognize that it cannot govern only with the support of a minority, recognize its failure, and alter its course. Unfortunately, it is very doubtful that Viktor Orbán will do so.