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Hungary's Referendum On Refugee Resettlement Is Overwhelming — But Invalid

Hungarian women wearing traditional costume cast their ballot at a polling station in Budapest, Hungary, during a referendum on Oct. 2 on refugee resettlement.
Arpad Kurucz/Anadolu Agency
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Hungarian women wearing traditional costume cast their ballot at a polling station in Budapest, Hungary, during a referendum on Oct. 2 on refugee resettlement.

One of the most fiercely debated issues in the European Union — the question of refugee resettlement — was put to a referendum vote in Hungary on Sunday.

The result: a landslide with no legal weight. More than 90 percent of voters sided with the Hungarian government against the prospect of European Union-dictated refugee resettlement. The Associated Press reports that with nearly all the valid ballots counted, the tally stood at more than 98 percent of voters opposed to resettlement.

But fewer than half the country's voters cast a ballot at all — turnout low enough to make the entire referendum invalid.

On top of that, a small but noteworthy percentage of voters intentionally cast a botched ballot to protest the referendum.

The referendum was described as a "Brussels or Budapest" question, the AP reports, with the ballot asking: "Do you want the European Union to be able to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary even without the consent of Parliament?"

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Sarhaddi Nelson explained on Morning Edition that "mandatory settlement" isn't part of the European Union's currently stated plans.

"That is definitely not what Brussels was proposing," she says. "What they wanted to do was relocate — maybe relocate, and only temporarily so — 1,300 refugees just to help give some relief to other countries that were having issues with large numbers coming in."

Whether it's relocation or resettlement, there is resistance in Hungary — and across Europe — to the idea of allowing refugees across borders.

"What voters were telling me is that this is a Christian country here and they want it undiluted by immigrants, and that they want to preserve the Hungarian culture," Soraya says.

But that sentiment wasn't enough to bring more than 50 percent of the country's voters to the polls.

One Hungarian who stayed home, Central European University professor Szabolcs Pogonyi, told Soraya he didn't think the EU's quota system, even if it were ever mandatory, would result in refugees staying in Hungary. They'd go to Sweden or Germany, where they could have a better life, he predicted.

And of those who did head to the polls, an estimated 6 percent of voters cast a defaced ballot, Soraya says. Many of them were inspired by a satirical political party called "The Two-Tailed Dog Party," which crowdsourced a $150,000 billboard and poster campaign to mock — and counter — the referendum.

The party, which includes free beer among its campaign promises, is headed by Monty Python enthusiast Gergely Kovács, Soraya reports:

"The 36-year-old graphic designer offered helpful tips to disgruntled voters on YouTube: He says a "quick and efficient way" to invalidate a ballot, is to spray lighter fluid onto it and set it on fire. Kovacs suggests: Burn it nice and easy, and make sure you don't set the voting booth on fire.

"Twenty-nine-year-old voter Alexandra says she watched the video. Fearing repercussions, she won't give her last name. Alexandra cast her ballot at a busy polling station in Budapest's business district, where chatty poll workers stamped her ballot and pointed her to a makeshift voting booth.

"Alexandra says she checked both the 'Yes' and 'No' boxes to invalidate her ballot: 'I wanted to show that I do agree with the democratic views and I do want to be part of a referendum but the question is stupid.' "

The AP reports that, according to Hungary's National Election Office, turnout for the referendum was less than 44 percent — and with invalid ballots discarded, just over 40 percent.

Even if Sunday's referendum was invalidated by low turnout, the overwhelming number of voters essentially voting against refugees has still raised concerns among asylum-seekers, Soraya says.

"Especially here in Hungary, where you now have fences that make it hard for asylum-seekers to come in and there's increasingly overt verbal abuse and just sort of xenophobia that's being stirred by this referendum, they're concerned that this is going to get worse," she says. "That you're going to have worsening border conditions, more fences going up and eventually refugee camps closing, which is going to leave them with no place to go."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.