Hungarians are expected to reject the European Union’s migrant quotas in a referendum yesterday but turnout will likely be too low to make the vote valid, disappointing Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
By 1300 GMT only 30.66% of voters had cast their ballots which analysts said indicated turnout will not top the 50% required for the poll to be valid.
While Orban and his right-wing Fidesz party are still likely to herald the vote as a victory at home, an invalid referendum would curb Orban’s ability to exert pressure on Brussels to change its migration policies.
“I think if turnout is around 40%, that is a fiasco for Viktor Orban and the government in international terms,” said Attila Juhasz, an analyst at think tank Political Capital.
Juhasz said they estimated turnout to be 44-46% based on currently available data.
Orban, in power since 2010, is among the toughest opponents of immigration in the EU, and over the past year has sealed Hungary’s southern borders with a razor-wire fence and thousands of army and police border patrols.
After casting his vote in a wealthy Budapest district early yesterday, Orban told reporters that he would go to Brussels next week to start talks, empowered by the referendum result.
“And I shall try, with the help of the outcome, if this is an appropriate outcome, to ensure that we should not be forced to accept in Hungary people we don’t want to live with.”
He said what mattered was that votes rejecting the quotas should exceed the number of “Yes” votes.
Voting closed at 1700 GMT, with preliminary results are expected after 1800 GMT.
Orban also said his government could modify the Hungarian constitution after the vote.
In a letter published in a daily newspaper on Saturday, Orban again urged Hungarians to send a message to the EU that its migration policies posed a threat to Europe’s security.
“We can send the message that it is only up to us, European citizens, whether we can jointly force the Union to come to its senses or let it destroy itself,” he wrote in the Magyar Idok.
While Budapest says immigration policy should be a matter of national sovereignty, human rights groups have criticised the government for stoking fears and xenophobia, and for mistreating refugees on the border.
Last year, hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East crossed Hungary on their way to richer countries in Western Europe.
This year Hungary recorded around 18,000 illegal border crossings.
Orban’s hardline approach on migration has won allies in Central Europe.
Eastern Europe’s former communist states, now in the European Union, are opposing a policy that would require all EU countries to take in some of the hundreds of thousands of people seeking asylum in the bloc.
Opinion polls show support for a rejection of EU migrant quotas of more than 80% among those who say they will vote.
Erzsebet Virag, voting near Budapest’s eastern railway station where a year ago thousands of migrants camped outside waiting to get on trains towards Vienna, said: “I voted (No) because there are many poor people in our country too and if more poor people come in we will be even poorer and have to work even more.”