98% of Hungarians reject EU refugee quotas, but low turnout rules referendum invalid

98.3% of Hungarian voters have rejected mandatory EU asylum seeker quotas in a referendum proposed by PM Viktor Orban. But the opposition boycott of Sunday's ballot appears to have worked, as turnout failed to clear the key 50 percent threshold.

Only 1.7 percent of the voters answered 'Yes' to the question “Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?"

But the turnout of 43.8 percent, or 3.6 million voters, means that the referendum will be declared invalid. Over 200,000 ballots were spoiled, another tactic by those opposing the vote.

The referendum was non-binding, but became a symbolic litmus test for Orban’s pro-sovereignty, anti-migrant and anti-Islamist policies.

His mostly left-wing political opponents rejected the very idea of the referendum, suggesting it would cause “tension” inside the country and in Budapest’s relationship with Brussels, and urged a boycott to prevent a validating turnout.

But the ruling party still chose to view the result as a success, with several officials pointing out that the referendum to join the EU in 2003 also failed to achieve a 50 percent turnout - yet was accepted - and that in fact more people voted against quotas than for accession.

"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 said in a statement in front of TV cameras in Budapest. "We have achieved an outstanding result, because we have surpassed the outcome of the accession referendum."

Orban also promised to alter the constitution to recognize the results of the vote.

We can rightfully say that today has brought a sweeping victory for all those who reject the forced resettlement of migrants, and for those who believe that the foundations of a strong EU can only be strong nations,” said Gergely Gulyas, vice-chairman of Orban’s Fidesz party, even as he admitted that the government’s high-profile poster and media referendum campaign failed to bring out the voters in sufficient numbers.

READ MORE: Hungary set to reject Merkel’s refugee quotas in ‘existential’ referendum

The former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, whose center-left Democratic Coalition opposed the referendum, said that Orban “has to listen to the people” and urged the politician, who has led Hungary since 2010, to resign his post.

The far-right Jobbik, who had campaigned alongside Fidesz to secure a valid referendum, also called on Orban to step down.

But most political analysts who spoke to RT argued that the sheer headline numbers of the referendum mean that Orban's gamble has paid off.

“Overall, this is a success for the government, as a rarely seen number and proportion of people voted in the same direction. The government will handle this as a source of political legitimacy even if it has failed to reach a legal threshold,” said political analyst Miklos Szantho, from Hungary’s Center of Fundamental Rights.

According to the EU scheme, initially proposed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Hungary would be obliged to house 1,294 asylum seekers. None have so far moved to the country, and the plan, which sought to find new homes for 160,000 refugees across the continent is currently in limbo.

While Hungary’s quota is relatively small, over 200,000 asylum seekers applied for temporary residence permits in the country since the start of last year, even if most of them moved on to other EU states, which offer a higher chance of receiving permanent residence and welfare.

With 1.8 million asylum seekers entering Europe last year, Hungary was a major transit point between Greece and desirable refugee destinations such as Germany, and the Nordic states.

But due to the construction of a guarded wall on Hungary’s southern border, and a fall in the inflow of asylum seekers, practical concerns have abated, even as debate about asylum seekers continues to dominate the internal political arena.