(Bloomberg) -- Hungarians are voting on whether to reject European Union quotas for hosting refugees, with turnout in the referendum Prime Minister Viktor Orban called to solidify his power base trailing the pace of a previous plebiscite.
The question on the ballot is: “Do you want the European Union to be able to order the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without parliament’s consent?”
By 1 p.m. in Budapest Sunday, 23.56 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot, trailing the 26.92 percent in a 2008 referendum that just cleared the 50 percent mark, according to the election commission website. Voting ends at 7 p.m.
With polls showing a “no” victory almost guaranteed, turnout was always going to be the main hurdle for the Hungarian leader. While the rules of the vote say participation must be at least 50 percent to be binding, Orban downplayed the significance of that threshold. He told reporters in Budapest after casting his ballot that the government would consider the vote binding anyway, according to the Index news website.
“At home, Orban will probably cast himself in the role of protector of Hungary from hordes of refugees, no matter the turnout,” Otilia Dhand, a Brussels-based analyst at Teneo Intelligence, said by phone. “But his case on the European stage will be much stronger if the vote is valid.”
Some opposition parties had called for a boycott of the referendum, while others asked voters to cast invalid ballots.
Orban, who has sparred with fellow EU leaders over democratic standards, has overwhelming support from Hungarians for his opposition to the open-door immigration policy of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, opinion polls show. He’s also seeking to harness political momentum before parliamentary elections in 2018, where he’ll run for a third consecutive term.
The ballot is a blow to European leaders’ efforts to show unity after a tumultuous year. Following its worst refugee crisis since World War II last year and the U.K.’s vote to leave the bloc, the EU is now facing calls by Orban and his conservative Polish ally Jaroslaw Kaczynski to give members more leeway to run their affairs without oversight from Brussels.
Unlike Merkel, who’s suffered a string of political defeats as she struggles to convince Germans to show solidarity, the Hungarian premier has linked immigration with terrorism. Having endorsed Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election, Orban has also warned that refugees threaten local jobs and that Europe’s Christian identity is at risk.
He’s built a fence to repel migrants and hammered the message home through billboard campaigns and an increasingly obedient state-media empire. The measures helped him overcome a slump in polls last year, and his Fidesz party now has more support than all opposition parties combined, according to a Median survey published Sept. 23.
Orban, 53, became prime minister in 1998 and returned to power in a landslide victory in 2010. That election gave him a two-thirds majority in parliament, which allowed the Fidesz party to change the constitution, weaken checks and balances on executive power and build what Orban has called an “illiberal state” modeled on Russia and Turkey. Refugees are the latest target for the premier, who has positioned his government as fighting the EU, global corporations, the International Monetary Fund, non-governmental organizations and Hungarian-born financier George Soros.
Orban told lawmakers to campaign as hard for the referendum as they would in a parliamentary election. The cabinet bought billboard ads urging voters to “not risk it” on immigration, while state-owned media has given extensive coverage to Fidesz’s message.
With so much political capital spent and European leaders monitoring the outcome, a failure to clear the turnout threshold would be Orban’s first failure in a nationwide vote since 2006, said Tamas Boros, director of the Budapest-based research institute Policy Solutions.
“The government will put its spin on the result, but it would be a political defeat for Orban if Hungarians fail to turn out in sufficient numbers on an issue the prime minister has made the centerpiece of his cabinet’s agenda,” Boros said. “A valid vote and a big ‘no’ victory, on the other hand, would boost Orban.”
Almost 44 percent of eligible voters surveyed said they’d back the government in the referendum, compared with 2 percent against it, according to a poll by the news website Index and Zavecz Research, published on Thursday. Orban told TV2 private television on Thursday that “sober and calm” discussions with the EU should follow the referendum.
Even if the vote is legally binding in Hungary, there’s no clear consequence for EU policy. Hungarians alone can’t stop policy decisions and the bloc hasn’t yet decided on a permanent mandatory-quota mechanism to resettle refugees. An initial effort to relocate 160,000 of the more than 1 million arrivals last year still hasn’t been completed. Hungary has filed a lawsuit to annul EU legislation that requires the country to accept 1,294 refugees.
“I understand that the citizens of Hungary will vote in a spirit of reason and responsibility,” EU Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday. “Nothing has changed. The commission insists on its policy based on values and principles; some of these values are binding legally.”