Hungary's right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban suffered a blow Sunday in his revolt against the European Union after low voter turnout voided his referendum aimed at rejecting a contested migrant quota plan.
Although a whopping 98 percent of those who voted supported his bid to reject the plan, turnout reached just 43 percent of the eight-million-strong electorate, falling short of a 50 percent threshold, the National Election Committee said after nearly all the ballots had been counted.
An invalid referendum could diminish the prime minister's ability to exert pressure on Brussels to change its migration policies.
Opposition figures – many of whom had urged voters to boycott the referendum – swiftly called on Orban to step down over the vote, after rights groups had accused him of whipping up anti-migrant fears despite there being only a few hundred asylum seekers in Hungary.
"A lot of people in Budapest are saying that this is the first big defeat for Orban since the 2002 elections," said FRANCE 24's correspondent in Hungary, Florence La Bruyère, referring to the prime minister's last electoral defeat 14 years ago.
Orban, who has been in power since 2010, is among the toughest opponents of immigration in the EU, and over the past year he has sealed Hungary’s southern borders with a razor-wire fence and thousands of army and police border patrols.
His right-wing government led an expensive media offensive urging voters to spurn the EU's plan, which seeks to share migrants around the 28 member states via mandatory quotas without the consent of national parliaments.
'The referendum was only ever symbolic'
On Sunday, the government sought to put a positive spin on the results, claiming a “sweeping victory” and warning that EU leaders must take the vote into account.
"Thirteen years after a large majority of Hungarians voted at a referendum to join the European Union, today Hungarians made their voices heard again in a European issue," Orban told a news conference, hailing the “outstanding” result.
The firebrand leader said he would submit an amendment to Hungary's constitution to put the result of the plebiscite into law
The EU proposal – spearheaded by Germany and approved by most EU governments last year after antagonistic debates – seeks to ease pressure on frontline countries Italy and Greece, the first port of arrival for most migrants.
But implementation has been slow.
Eastern and central European nations vehemently oppose the plan aimed at relocating 160,000 people, many of whom fled war in Syria.
Hungary has not accepted a single one of the 1,294 refugees allocated to it under the scheme and instead joined Slovakia in filing a legal challenge against it.
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Top EU officials had warned the referendum threatened to further split the quarrelling bloc, already weakened by Britain's vote in June to leave the union – a decision Orban has blamed on the EU's handling of the migrant crisis.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz said Sunday that Orban was playing "a dangerous game" that could affect the entire bloc, merely to cement his power at home.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2016-10-02