Hungarians vote on whether to participate in EU refugee resettlement plan

Many voters intentionally spoiled their ballots, answering both Yes and No in an attempt to invalidate the referendum. (Photo Credit: Index.hu via Creative Commons)

Voters in Hungary, at least a small percentage of them, went to the polls Sunday to decide if the country will participate in an EU plan to resettle refugees. At the height of the migrant crisis in Europe last year, the European Union asked member states to each take in a quota of the hundreds of thousands of people who were arriving through the Mediterranean Sea. Hungary’s right-wing government found this so objectionable, that they put the matter to a referendum. Sunday, more than three million Hungarians agreed with the government, but most didn’t vote at all, while the vast majority of refugees caught in the snare of closed borders, are still languishing in camps in Italy and Greece. FSRN’s Andrew Connelly has more from Budapest.

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Days before the referendum in Hungary, campaigning reached extremes. On Saturday, at a rock concert organized by Jobbik – Hungary’s far-right party – outside of the parliament building, skinheads could be seen giving Nazi salutes.

On Sunday morning, at a service at St. Stephen’s Basilica, some followers offered prayers to refugees.

The vast contrast in attitudes reflects the polarization in Hungarian society based on fears about immigration.

Situated halfway between Turkey and Germany, last year more than 400,000 refugees traveled through Hungary, most of them from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. In response to the crisis, the government constructed barbed wire fences on its southern borders. The country’s hard-line prime minister, Viktor Orban, was quick to label refugees and migrants ‘terrorists’ and ‘poison.’ Ironic, given that economic hardship in Hungary has resulted in a net export of hundreds of thousands of their own migrants.

“Do you want the European Union to be entitled to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of parliament?” That’s the loaded question Hungarians faced at the polls Sunday, referring to a European Union policy asking member states to take in a specific number of refugees who are currently stranded in the front line states of Italy and Greece.

Some voters, like teacher Teri Feldmar, disagree with the government and the principle of this referendum so vehemently, they decided to spoil their ballot.

“I voted for yes and no at the same time – so I gave an invalid vote because the question itself doesn’t make any sense,” Feldmar explains. “On the other hand, I’m against the government and if I vote yes, I contribute to the chance of the whole referendum being valid and I don’t want that.”

For liberal minded Hungarians, the government’s hostile stance towards refugees is unacceptable. Nevertheless, more than three million voters supported the government’s position to reject mandatory quotas, though turnout was only 43 percent. Many political analysts in the country think that nearly 5 percent, like Teri, decided to actively spoil their ballots to make sure the 50 percent threshold required by law for the referendum to be valid was not met. Though many mainstream political parties boycotted the plebiscite, one particular group was highly effective in mobilizing dissent.

The Two Tailed Dog Party, a liberal activist group, decided to satirize the state-sponsored propaganda campaign by distributing their own posters. While the government billboards linked refugees to terrorism and claimed the EU wanted to settle a city’s worth of migrants in Hungary, their billboards warned about the possibility of a tree falling on your head, and how Hungarians were more likely to see a UFO than a refugee. The party attracted the support of two thousand volunteers, and raised more than $145,000.

Party president Gergely Kovacs told FSRN that he does not consider his fellow citizens as racist, but rather manipulated by government spin

“We think that this is the biggest mistake of our government, that they could bring the evil out of millions of people, there are millions in Hungary spending their days hating the non-existent refugees,” Gergely Kovacs says. “Most people vote against something, that’s why our government is always trying to find new enemies who the people can hate, and then they won’t hate the government. They began with the opposition, then came the homeless, the drug users, the gays, foreign companies, banks, the EU. It’s a very long list.”

At a rally of the green liberal party Dialogue for Hungary, speaker Revered Balazs Szucs feared the referendum risked opening up painful episodes of Hungary’s World War II past.

“I think Hungarian society has been hurt and wounded a lot by this campaign. Because we have these historical memories of when hate and fear killed hundreds of thousands of Hungarian people,” Szucs explains. “Refugees are not our problem. And our education system is our problem. And the health system is our problem. And now fear is a big problem between us.”

A peaceful demonstration brutally repressed by an authoritarian regime using tanks and bullets causing thousands of civilian deaths and prompting hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee across Europe. Such a description fits Syria today, but it was also Hungary 60 years ago during the uprising against Soviet Union-imposed policies.

Surely now it’s a double standard that the government agitates so vociferously against refugees?

At a so-called victory party Sunday evening, FSRN asked the Prime Minister’s chief spokesman Zoltan Kovacs, “In 1956, the Hungarian revolution produced 200,000 Hungarian refugees and prompted a big, global program to resettle them around 37 different countries. I’m just wondering if you find any irony now in holding a referendum against a refugee resettlement program?”

“Well, the comparison with the ‘56 revolution is a lack of knowledge of history, an ignorance of history. This is a completely different story,” Zoltan Kovacs responded. “At that time, Europe was divided.”

“Europe is divided now,” FSRN pointed out.

“Right, but this is not a division line,” said Zoltan Kovacs. “What we are doing now – we would not like to divide Europe we would like to unite Europe and defend Europe in the face of a challenge.”

Critics argue that without meeting the 50 percent voter turnout threshold, the referendum is invalid. But the government says the overwhelming support from more than three million Hungarian citizens who did vote hands lawmakers a political mandate. In many ways, the government has already won, as the extremist narrative against refugees grows louder every day, with no resolution to the humanitarian crisis in sight.

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