The Hungarian Referendum
And the Winner is . . . Apathy
The results of Hungary’s referendum on the EU’s migrant quotas are in: most Hungarians don’t want to allow the EU to force them to accept migrants, but don’t care enough to bother going to the polls to vote against it.
A bit of background: in September 2015, after the scale of the migrant crisis had become apparent, the EU called for all its member states to accept a mandatory quota of migrants in order to attempt to distribute the pain equally. Hungary and Slovakia challenged the quotas in the European Court of Justice on the grounds that the EU has no legal right to impose such quotas.
Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, who has taken the lead in political resistance to the migrant invasion from the outset to tremendous popular support, called for a referendum on the quotas in February, and the National Assembly approved the measure in May, in spite of legal opposition from liberal NGOs. All of the MPs from Orbán’s party, Fidesz, as well as from its Rightist opposition, Jobbik, voted in favor. The minority Left-wing opposition parties, which currently comprise less than 30% of the Assembly, mostly boycotted the session.
Orbán was warned by some sympathizers that this was a dangerous gamble, since Hungary’s constitution requires that a referendum must be voted on by at least 50% of eligible voters in order for it to be considered valid. In fact, since the introduction of Hungary’s post-Communist constitution in 1990, only one referendum has passed this mark, namely the referendum on revoking some of the fees associated with healthcare and tuition for higher education in 2008, which passed with 50.48% of eligible voters participating. Ironically, it was Fidesz which first introduced the 50% requirement in 2011; prior to that time there was no threshold and it was sufficient for 50% of the valid votes, or for at least 25% of all eligible voters to give the same answer, for a referendum to pass. By this standard, the quota referendum’s result would have been a resounding success.
Nevertheless, the referendum was set for October 2, and in recent months the streets of Hungary’s towns and cities have been plastered with government-sponsored flyers and posters, and Hungary’s airwaves were jammed with commercials, warning of the consequences that mass immigration has had on Western European countries. It constituted the largest advertisement campaign in Hungarian history.
Given that most of Hungary’s population has always been opposed to the idea of non-European immigrants being welcomed within their borders, there was little doubt about the result, but crossing the 50% mark was obviously going to be a challenge. This was further complicated by the fact that most of the Leftist parties, knowing that they had no chance of defeating the referendum at the polls, instructed their members to boycott it altogether, with only the Hungarian Liberal Party, which currently holds one seat in the 199-member Assembly, urging its members to vote in favor of the quotas. The Communist Hungarian Workers’ Party, which currently holds no seats, is opposed to liberalism and correspondingly urged supporters to vote against the quotas.
Regrettably, but unsurprisingly, the referendum failed with only 43.89% of eligible voters participating. However, 98.3% (3,226,098) were no votes, with only 1.7% voting in favor of the quotas, and 6.33% of ballots being declared invalid (many of them were filled out humorously by pranksters who were encouraged to do so by the libertarian Two-Tailed Dog Party) – 277,577 in total. Orbán nevertheless has claimed victory, pointing out that more people voted against the quotas than who voted in favor of Hungary’s entry into the EU in 2003, and says he has a mandate to take to Brussels to show them that Hungarians reject the possibility of accepting migrants. Nevertheless, Orbán’s opponents, both domestically and in Brussels, will no doubt use this result to try to show that opposition to the EU’s handling of the migrant crisis isn’t as strong as the Right has been making it out to be. This criticism won’t be limited to the Left, either: although Jobbik had encouraged its followers to vote against the quotas, the party’s leader, Gábor Vona, had regarded the measure as foolhardy and stated before the referendum that Orbán should resign if it failed.
It should be emphasized, however, that the result will not alter any of the policies that Hungary has already implemented regarding the migrant crisis, such as its border fence with Serbia, and that the government will undoubtedly use the overwhelming result among those who did vote as justification for additional measures. Orbán has also called for a change to the constitution which will reduce the 50% threshold for future referendums.
I can’t say I was shocked by this result given what I observed at two events over the previous two days: the first, on Friday, was a liberal demonstration against the referendum; and the second, on Saturday, was a nationalist demonstration in support of it.
After nearly three years of living here, I wouldn’t exactly describe Budapest as a liberal city, but it is certainly the heart of liberalism in Hungary — not that that’s saying much. Nevertheless, there is a small but vocal faction of people, mainly based in Budapest, who dream of transforming the city, and the country, into a Western-style cosmopolitan mecca along the lines of Paris, London, or Stockholm. And unless the government remains vigilant, the groups these people form and support, often funded by the likes of George Soros and actively encouraged by the US government and the EU, may slowly but surely begin to shift the Hungarian public’s consciousness in that direction.
I began to have some insight into the nature of the demonstration I was about to witness during the metro ride on the way over to it, when I noticed a group of people speaking American- and British-accented English standing near me. One of them, a middle-aged White woman, was wearing tie-dyed pants — not exactly a common sight in Hungary, so that already tipped me off that they were likely heading to the same place. My suspicions were confirmed when a Hungarian asked them if they were going to the protest — “Yes,” a young woman with an American accent replied with a self-assured smirk, “but we’re not going to punch anybody, I promise.”
I asked them where they were from, and the same woman answered, “Oh, we’re from all over — we’re very multicultural!” Then she turned to one of her companions and said, “He’s from Iran.” Then she said to him sarcastically, “Aren’t you supposed to be raping me? That’s what I’ve heard from the government, that immigrants like you are only here to rape me.” The rest of her group chortled condescendingly at those dimwitted hicks who actually think that letting in millions of undocumented illegal immigrants is a bad idea. The messianic instinct that some Americans have to spread their poison over the rest of the world by trying to impose their beliefs on everyone else remains amazing to me.
Realizing that I wasn’t likely to get anything more out of her other than stock slogans and sarcasm, I didn’t say anything else, and when we reached the station I lost them in the bustle of people heading out onto Kossuth Square, which is the square in front of Hungary’s gloriously Gothic Parliament Building where, among other dramatic events, hundreds of unarmed protesters were gunned down by Soviet troops during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.
On the Square I was greeted by the sound of generic ’60s guitar music — I guess that’s now the global standard for protests — and the sight of, at most, a few hundred people milling around in front of a makeshift stage. Earlier in the afternoon there had been a “performance art” piece called Aleppo which was supposed to depict the sufferings of the “refugees” — unfortunately I actually had productive work to do, so I had to miss it. The demonstration was organized by a coalition of liberal NGOs, activist groups, and “art” organizations, including Hungary’s LGBT Alliance. The fact that there were only a few hundred people in attendance — out of a city of two million people — wasn’t that surprising to me, given what I knew to be the lack of popular support for the quotas. But what did surprise me is that there were very few young people there, and most of the ones I did see seemed to be foreigners, as I could tell from their speech or from the fact that they weren’t White — most likely students (such as at George Soros’ Central European University, which is nearby), people working for NGOs, or tourists who just happened to be passing by at the time. A few “Eracism” T-shirts were visible. But overall, most of the people there were either middle-aged or older. I’m not certain what the reason for this was, but I suspect that they were old Communist stalwarts who view supporting the migrants as hearkening back to their long-since-banished internationalist social justice ideals, and who oppose anything that Orbán and Fidesz favor.
After a few minutes, the hippie music was switched off, and a series of speakers — again, all middle-aged — mounted the stage and began haranguing the crowd. Unfortunately my Hungarian isn’t good enough to tell you what they were saying, but it didn’t seem like most of the crowd really cared, anyway, as people were casually talking amongst themselves and wandering about as they pleased, with few actually appearing to pay attention to what was being said. I saw no evidence of anyone attempting to interfere with the proceedings. After half an hour, when it appeared that nothing more interesting was going to happen, I left, assured that there was unlikely to be any populist upset in favor of the quotas.
The next day, also at Kossuth Square, the Hungarian nationalist movement Betyársereg (Outlaw’s Army) held a counter-demonstration. As I again ascended the steps from the metro, this time I was greeted by the heroic strains of the Hungarian National Anthem blasting at full volume, which I at first assumed was being played by the nationalists, although I soon learned that a small group of Leftists had set up speakers on the opposite side of the Square (behind a police barricade) in an attempt to disrupt the event. I suppose they chose the National Anthem over the ’60s music of the previous day to prove that they are the “real patriots,” or something of the sort.
By my estimate, the number of people on the Square was even smaller than the first day, although not by a lot — again, several hundred people were present. This time, however, the crowd was overwhelmingly young, and other than me, Ramzpaul (who happened to be checking out the event as well), and a pair of young American backpackers who recognized the two of us from our videos, I didn’t detect any foreigners this time. Most were decked out in Hungarian nationalist gear, featuring Rovás (the ancient Hungarian runic script) or the names of their favorite bands. In some cases entire families had come, along with their toddlers.
This event also had some speakers, although they were much briefer, and the crowd was clearly more enthused by what they had to say than the Leftists had been the previous day. The National Anthem, which the Leftists seemed to crank up in desperation, failed to overwhelm the speeches; if anything it provided enhancement from the background. They did succeed in making it more difficult to hear the voice of a poor young woman who sang a traditional patriotic song, but when the main act, which was a performance by the locally well-known nationalist metal band Romantikus Erőszak, took the stage, the futility of their attempt at interference was clear. Soon everyone was singing along and clapping to songs such as “100% Magyar.”
I noticed one older man who was weaving his way through the crowd and taking photos of anyone whom he seemed to consider important — I assume he was working for one of the Leftist organizations or what passes for antifa in Hungary. Maybe the photos are online somewhere or other by now. Another carried a protest sign. But overall nothing notable happened. The police and security presence was significant, but there was never any violence, although a few times some of the nationalists went up to the police barricade and shouted song lyrics and made rude gestures at the small, pitiful-looking band of protesters manning the speakers.
The energy and enthusiasm of the event was palpable and enjoyable, and it was certainly a success for everyone in attendance. But I couldn’t help but be bothered by the fact that there weren’t ten times as many people on the Square. I’ve gotten to know the Hungarians fairly well, I’d like to think, in recent years, and I know that their national spirit and sense of identity remain very strong, even among those who aren’t overly political in their outlook. And yet it seemed that the relatively low attendance at both events reflected a general indifference to the referendum one way or the other, or, in the case of those opposed to the referendum, a dangerous overconfidence. Didn’t Hungarians realize that the very future of their people, their culture, and their civilization was at stake?
The answer, as became clear on Sunday, was clearly no.
Speaking to a Hungarian friend once the outcome of the referendum was clear, he explained that most Hungarians haven’t experienced the ravages of multiculturalism and mass immigration firsthand, and thus many fail to realize the danger they are in, and consequently the pressing need to vote. Another possible explanation for the low turnout is simply voter fatigue following the prolonged and intensive government campaign in recent months.
But in spite of the somewhat disappointing result, it is certain that the Hungarian government will use the voters’ clear message as a springboard to move ahead with their plans to tighten their immigration policies and double down on their resistance to Brussels. The outcome does indicate that there is a rebounding Left and an increasingly apathetic Right in Hungary. It can only be hoped that Fidesz and the other nationalist organizations are successful in revitalizing their own side before it is too late. Hungary won’t be Sorosized overnight, but the Hungarian Right will have to be vigilant and focus on the big picture over internal political squabbles if they want to continue to keep liberalism at bay as successfully as they have done over the past decade, since the nationalist riots of 2006, which brought down the then-ruling Hungarian Socialist Party. Opposition to the Right will surely only grow even further in the years to come, given Hungary’s deserved reputation as the most anti-liberal state in the EU.
For those of us who are not Hungarian, the lesson to be drawn from this, only a month before America’s own Election Day, is that there is no such thing as a foregone conclusion in mass democratic politics. We, too, must not become complacent or pessimistic. Here’s hoping that the opponents of liberalism and the political establishment among the American electorate take the opportunity that has been offered to them to strike a potential blow against the elite that has had a monopoly on US politics for decades now.
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