After an intense, months-long media campaign and the expenditure of around HUF 16 billion (USD 55 million) of public funds, the government’s anti-EU refugee resettlement quota referendum has returned an invalid result due to lack of sufficient participation.
Voting was held Sunday between 6 in the morning and 7 in the evening. By the time polls had closed, some 43 percent of Hungary’s eligible 8,272,625 voters had participated in the referendum, well below the 50 percent plus one threshold necessary to validate it. Early results already showed a below-average rate of participation, relative to previous elections and referendums held in Hungary since 1996. By 11 this morning, 16.37 percent had cast a valid ballot, compared with an average of 19.75 percent by the same time in elections of the last 20 years. By 5:30 in the afternoon the rate of participation had fallen even farther behind the average: 39.88 percent had cast a valid vote, compared with the average of 47.14 percent.
The most expensive public opinion poll in history
The failure of the government to adequately mobilize the voters comes as some surprise, given the tremendous material and human resources poured into the referendum in the last months. In an interview last week on ATV, Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) representative Tamás Harangozó cited a public information request which showed that the government’s Ministry of Information under the leadership of Fidesz politician Antal Rogán had spent HUF 11.3 billion (USD 40 million) on the campaign encouraging voters to participate, plus HUF 4.5-5 billion on organizing the vote itself. This sum of some HUF 16 billion is more than was spent on the United Kingdom’s BREXIT referendum campaign by both sides combined, reports atlatszo.hu. These numbers contradict the official totals given by Rogán, according to which only HUF 3.9 billion had been allocated for the campaign.
Most of the money was awarded in no-bid contracts to a company owned by a media oligarch close to ruling party Fidesz. Rogán’s posh Pasa Park neighbor Csaba Csétenyi owns United Advertising Consortium (Egyesült Reklám Konzorcium), the company entrusted with “the implementation of a public awareness campaign and the display of the government’s anti-quota messages.”
Victory in defeat: Fidesz receives its mandate
The invalid referendum, in legal terms, means that the parliament has no obligation to change any of the country’s laws to reflect the result of the vote. But Fidesz can’t afford to let the referendum go down in history as a failure.
As we reported earlier, the ruling party could see the writing on the wall that there might not be sufficient turnout to validate the referendum. They went into preemptive damage-control, reframing the context of the vote to downplay the significance of an invalid vote. The important thing, they claimed, is that votes against the refugee resettlement quota should outnumber “yes” votes.
Now that the referendum has officially failed, party leaders are hard at work to save face. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had stated that he would be disappointed in any less than 100 percent participation, but that even in the case of an invalid referendum, if the “no” votes outnumbered the “yes” votes, he would consider this a mandate for legislative action.
“Valid is always better than invalid,” the prime minister said Sunday morning, “but legal consequences will occur in any case.”
This echoes statements made by Fidesz politician Szilárd Németh two weeks ago on ATV.
“This referendum will be valid in any case,” he said, citing a failed 2004 referendum as a moral victory, if not a legal one, for the government’s position. He added that in the October 2 referendum, a majority of voters are sure to vote “no” to the quotas, validating the legally invalid.
Indeed, “no” votes greatly outnumbered “yes” votes in the referendum. Of the 43 percent of voters who cast ballots, more than 92 percent ticked a “no” vote, compared with just over 1 percent voting “yes” and about 6.5 percent voting invalidly.
But the proportion of votes is irrelevant, in legal terms, since the referendum fell well short of 50 percent participation.
Opposition politicians have already begun clamoring for the government to step down. Former prime minister and opposition Democratic Coalition (DK) party leader Ferenc Gyurcsány called for Orbán’s resignation. Extreme-right party Jobbik also called on him to quit, saying the referendum amounted to nothing more than a 20 billion forint public opinion poll, the results of which everyone knew without money.
“The arrogant, insolent, often extortionate campaign can’t be left without consequences,” said Jobbik spokesman Ádám Mirkóczki.
What legal consequences may follow, whether mandated or not, are solely in the hands of Fidesz. Leading party politicians and the prime minister himself have given assurances that changes will be made to the country’s laws, changes that could include constitutional amendments. Fidesz’s big failure might soon turn into a justification for big changes ahead.