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Dueling Narratives: EU Overreach vs Hungary's Resistance

"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?" This was the question asked to Hungarians on Sunday's special referendum. It was prompted by an outcry from Hungarians at the throngs of Middle Eastern refugees and migrants that have crossed into their country in the past two years, and President Victor Orbán's disgust at the European Union's plan to distribute refugees amongst all of its member countries regardless of the wishes of the citizenry.

The referendum was Orbán and his ruling Fidesz Party's opportunity to snub their nose at European Union and German leadership on the issue. But things did not go precisely as planned. While the results were as expected—a resounding 98.3 percent said 'No' to the above question—the turnout numbers have proven to be the fly in Orbán's ointment.

Hungarian law requires that for a referendum to be valid, turnout must reach 50 percent. Final turnout was rather lower at 40.4 percent.

Several of Hungary's smaller and more liberal parties had called for a boycott of the referendum hoping for exactly this result. It seems that those who approve of the EU's rather gentler approach to the refugee crisis chose to stay home and render the result invalid instead of casting their votes against. Others, fully four percent of the ballots, were purposefully made invalid when voters drew pictures on them to otherwise spoil them.

So what does this mean for Orbán's crusade against what he sees as EU overreach? Yes, he wins the vote, but too few people actually cared enough to come out and cast their ballots so it should not legally matter. This result would seem to indicate both that Hungarian society is split on the question and that Orbán does not have nearly as much public support on this issue as he thought he did.

However, Orbán has insisted that "we are going to do this if the referendum is valid and even if it isn't valid...the only criteria is that there be more 'no' votes than 'yes' votes." It is said that the government spent 11.2 million USD pushing Hungarians to vote no—he apparently has no intent of letting the low turnout numbers mar that victory.

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