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The political stakes of the quota referendum

September 12th, 2016

Analysts across the political spectrum ponder the potential implications of the 2 October migrant quota referendum for Hungarian domestic politics and the European Union.

In a recent poll published by the left-wing Publicus pollster company, 63 per cent of the electorate think that Hungary has no duty to help refugees. Although two-thirds of the respondents are against immigration, 68 per cent also think that the mandatory migrant redistribution quota will not be introduced anyway, regardless of the Hungarian referendum. 53 per cent told the pollsters they would definitely participate in the referendum, while another 23 per cent said they are likely to do so. 67 per cent said they would vote against the quota, and only 15 per cent endorse it. 60 per cent of the respondents also thought that the primary aim of Fidesz with the referendum is to promote goals unrelated to immigration.

On the Mozgástér blog, Zoltán Kiszelly contends that the referendum will have important repercussions in the EU as well as in Hungary. The pro-government political scientist suspects that what he expects to be the ‘overwhelming rejection’ of the migrant quota system will provide the Orbán government with a powerful trump card in its debate with the EU. Concerning the domestic implications, Kiszelly thinks that the opposition parties will claim victory if the turnout remains below the 50 per cent quorum required for the referendum to be valid. By counting all voters who do not cast a ballot as their supporters, the left-wing parties will claim that the majority of Hungarians do not share the government’s vision concerning migration. In addition, the failure of the referendum would help the MSZP and the Democratic Coalition, the two main left-wing parties which are asking voters to stay away from the ballot, to claim leadership on the Left, Kiszelly concludes.

In a comment on Kiszelly’s opinion Gábor Török thinks that the government is risking a lot by framing the referendum as an issue of life and death. In the light of recent polls, Török points out that although the vast majority of voters will reject the migrant quota system, it cannot be taken for granted that the turnout will reach the 50 per cent quorum. After their intense campaign, governing parties may have difficulties in claiming victory if the referendum fails due to a low turnout, even if most voters who participate support their proposal, Török ruminates.

The most important implications of the referendum are related to the EU, András Lánczi comments in his Mozgástér blog. The conservative analyst acknowledges that the mobilization of supporters is important for the governing parties, and their success could further weaken the opposition parties. Lánczi nonetheless believes that the main importance of the referendum lies in its implications for the EU. If the government is supported by 3.4 million Hungarian voters, as suggested by recent polls, the EU will have a hard time to push through the mandatory quota system without violating the sovereignty of member states, Lánczi concludes.

PM Orbán wants to use the October 2 referendum to strengthen his power at the EU level, Albert Gazda writes in Magyar Nemzet. The centrist columnist thinks that the referendum will have a huge impact on domestic politics: if it is successful, the government will take a huge step towards securing victory at the 2018 general election. But even these domestic considerations do not explain the intensity of the government’s campaign, Gazda believes. Mr Orbán hopes that his victory at the referendum will make him an even more important power player on the European level.

In Magyar Idők, Zsuzanna Farkas claims that if the Hungarian referendum is successful, the EU cannot introduce mandatory migrant redistribution quotas without violating ‘democratic self-determination’. As a result, the EU will have to completely reconsider its migration policy framework, the pro-government commentator believes. As for the domestic implications, Farkas suspects that the success of the referendum would be a devastating blow to the Left, which claims that Hungarians do not support the government.

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