Why Hungary's (Failed) Referendum On Refugees Sends An Important Message

Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s strongman, just got a big warning from his “beloved” people.
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Laszlo Balogh / Reuters

Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s strongman, just got a big warning from his “beloved” people. On Sunday the country held a referendum he had called, which turned out to be invalid. It was his political pet project, a vote of confidence if you will. Hungarians were asked to express their positions on the compulsory refugee quota of the European Union.The bizarrely formulated question was: “Do you want the EU forcibly resettling non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the Hungarian Parliament’s approval?”

A valid referendum would have required a 50 percent participation. Only 43 percent participated and only 40 percent of the votes were valid, rendering the referendum invalid. In light of his enormous effort, this is no doubt a failure. He spent close to $70 million, most of it taxpayers’ money, on his anti-EU, anti-refugee position, a xenophobic, hateful campaign to push for a “No” vote. For months Hungarians had to endure the aggressive government-led scare-mongering, intimidation, the in-your-face campaign slogans, many of which proved to be based on untrue information about refugees. All this in every single commercial break on state television, on the giant posters in streets, in the almost totally Orbán controlled “private” media.

And still, the majority of Hungarians ignored him.

Just hours after voters snubbed him, Orbán had his agitprop machine working full throttle, suggesting that “politically this is still a victory” and is a mandate to act. Truth be told, 92 percent of those who did go to the polls voted against the compulsory acceptance of the EU’s bad quota idea. (Mind you, we are talking about 1,294 refugees in all.) But Orbán and his fiefs make a farce of the whole concept of a referendum: how is an invalid referendum valid? This is insane.

This seemingly unimportant referendum, happening in an only marginally important country in Central Europe, has some important consequences for the EU. Within the EU, Orbán has become the self-proclaimed ideologue and leader of the “illiberal,” anti-Brussels, anti-refugee movement. He just lost part of his clout as the leader of the pack of these populists in the EU ―he can’t claim that the majority of the nation is unquestionably behind him.

However, the result is far more important for Hungary itself. This could (stress on could) be a turning point in Orbán’s luck, the slowing of backsliding of democracy in this battered country, once a beacon of hope for democratic transition in Central Europe. The result shows that Hungarians are increasingly fed up with his authoritarian governance, and the untalented yes men surrounding him. He might have full control over the media, the judiciary, the economy and the legislature ― but not the people. Hungarians just told him: Hey, wait a minute, we are maybe not as smart as you say we are, but we are not as stupid as you think we are.

“This is a victory of the Hungarian people, the majority of whom, against all odds, embrace Europe, openness, solidarity and democracy.”

But before European leaders also interpret the rejection of Orbán’s proposal by Hungarians as their own victory as the approval of the EU’s handling of the refugee crisis, they should think twice. They should be reminded that their failure to recognize and address the crisis early is the single most important element in Orbán’s revival a year and a half ago, when he was down and almost out, giving him a new lease on his political life. His ability to ride the fear of a refugee/immigrant wave, turning it into a call to arms by a scared population, is largely due to the messy, confused and simply wrong decisions of the EU and some major member states in handling the crisis.

Europe’s leaders did not understand (did they really care?) the implications of a botched, one-size-fits-all refugee policy on the internal situation in different countries. They should have taken into account the fragility, the weakness of democratic institutions and the fears of people in Central and Eastern Europe. The “bring it on” approach of Germany was harmful. They did not realize the dangers of pushing the Dublin agreement (a refugee is registered and stays in the country of entry into the Union) to the limits, when it was already clear from the beginning that this was not the solution. They failed, for whatever reason, to distinguish between refugees and migrants. The list is long. Millions of Hungarians are disappointed with the EU.

Yesterday’s result is in many ways a sign of Hungarians’ maturity. They are slowly learning that change has to come from within, they are primarily responsible for the health of Hungarian democracy. While being embedded in transatlantic institutions, the EU and NATO, is important, change will not come from the European Union, or the U.S. But then Europe’s center-right leaders must understand that Orbán’s cozy, protective relationship with the conservative parties in Europe and big business should not give him a pass on everything he does.

In Hungary, while some opposition parties see the results as their resounding victory, it wasn’t. This is a victory of the Hungarian people, the majority of whom against all odds embrace Europe, openness, solidarity and democracy. They are fed up with the failed policies of the past and the present, the political elite as a whole, who led Hungary down this sorrow path. Next time around Hungarians will be looking for somebody fresh and new.

Yesterday was not a good day for Viktor Orbán, but for now he will shrug it off. He is disappointed but will not admit his failure. But then he interprets democracy, democratic process and institutions loosely. Unfortunately, in spite of the results, he will say this is a mandate to change the constitution and laws in order to further tighten his grip on the country, using the refugee/migrant crisis as a pretext. But he should be careful: those who abstained, are mostly disenchanted, mostly against him and his policies, rather than in support of the EU’s migration policies. And a great number of those who voted to reject EU policy are not his supporters.

I wonder if he still is the talented politician he once was and if he understands the message of the people. He needs to tread carefully. This was a serious warning that the patience of the Hungarian people is running out.

It is just such a pity there is no longer anyone around him to tell the truth.

Satellite Images Of Refugees Entering Hungary