On 2 October, the majority of Hungarian voters refused to cast a valid ballot at the so-called ‘quota referendum’. The referendum that asked ‘Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?’ drew a little over 44% of eligible voters after an aggressive campaign that cost around 50 million euros.
Of those who actually voted, 98% answered no. However, a record high number, more than 7% of voters either took the ballot papers home or cast an invalid vote. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, together with dozens of other NGOs and social movements, called for voters to participate and cast invalid ballots in order to show their active resistance to a senseless referendum that was an abuse of one of the most important features of democracy, that is, the direct involvement of the people in the decision-making procedure.
Even if the vote had been valid, its legal consequence would have been unclear. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee argued, as early as May this year that as the question seeks to address an issue over which the Hungarian Parliament has no jurisdiction, no clear obligation would have arisen, even if the vote had been valid. Thus it should come as no surprise that the Hungarian government carefully withheld any concrete information during the campaign that would have indicated the exact changes that a valid ‘no’ vote would have brought about.
The government’s expansive and expensive campaign featured xenophobic elements with asylum seekers and refugees being equated to terrorists, Western European capitals being described as “no-go zones”, and where the central administration allegedly lost control to violent gangs of migrants. By the end of the campaign, much of the population believed that Hungary was in a state of siege rather than being a peaceful EU Member State. Moreover, the campaign created a hysteria that resulted in the physical abuse of activists campaigning for an invalid vote and the humiliation of women wearing headscarves. All of this led to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee warning that the estimated financial costs (equating to the sum of the average monthly salary of one hundred thousand Hungarians) are likely going to be dwarfed by the long-term effects that the xenophobic hate campaign would have on Hungarian society.
With the result of the referendum being invalid, the Hungarian government is at a crossroads. It could either double down on its rhetoric and continue to pursue the wilful dismantling of the Hungarian asylum system, a strategy the majority of voters clearly refused last Sunday, or it could finally start acting responsibly and accept that to address the challenges posed by international migration, especially forced migration, dialogue and partnership is needed between states. It seems that the Hungarian electorate have opted for the latter, refusing to engage with the government’s scaremongering, xenophobia and empty anti-EU rhetoric.
Despite the invalidity of the referendum, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán boasted about the 3 million no votes and pledged to amend the constitution in order to ensure that no forced quotas would ever be imposed on Hungary by the European Union. However, almost a week after the failed referendum, the Prime Minister has yet to publish the text of his proposed constitutional amendments. Nonetheless, Minister of Justice László Trócsányi stated that the amendment will be a “spiritual” one, as opposed to a specific, detailed, technical one.
In the end, there are no winners in this situation: the government did not get the legitimacy it sought from the referendum, and the majority of the electorate voted with their feet, refusing to engage with the government’s plans. Most of those seeking asylum are still denied access to the country and face brutality from various groups at Hungary’s borders. Those granted international protection may still be forced into homelessness and destitution. Lastly, it is Hungarian society as a whole that pays the largest price: despite the government bearing sole responsibility for the incitement of hatred and xenophobia, we will all have to live with these consequences and who knows how long into the future they will last.