A sea of enormous blue billboards, seemingly invisible to tourists, visitors, and the global media, swamped the streets of Hungary in the summer of 2016. Crafted and distributed by the federal government and paid for through public expenditures, the billboards conveyed a series of statements critical of the recent influx of refugees into the European Union, all followed by a simple reminder: REFERENDUM — Oct. 2, 2016.
The European migrant crisis has had a massive effect on the political climate of Europe. Politicians across the continent have wagered political careers over migrant policies and commitments to international solidarity. Some, like David Cameron, have paid the price.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, on the other hand, has taken the migrant crisis in his stride. His right-wing Fidesz party, with 114 of the National Assembly’s 199 seats, has amped up its hardline conservative and vaguely Eurosceptic rhetoric in the face of growing public disapproval towards EU immigration policies, effectively tightening the party’s grip on the Hungarian political scene.
Mr. Orbán has keenly set himself up as the protector of a new Hungary, founded on age-old cultural norms and Christian principles, standing up against a growing foreign threat to the Hungarian way of life under the refugee influx and against the bullying orders of the EU bigwigs in Brussels. When Angela Merkel welcomed Syrian refugees to Germany in the summer of 2015, Mr. Orbán announced that Hungary would construct a 110-mile-long fence along its Serbian border to keep out the migrant “invasion” streaming into the country and the EU. When the March 2016 suicide bombings occurred in Brussels, a whopping 700 miles away from Budapest, Mr. Orbán ordered a second-degree terror alert in Hungary and stationed policemen wielding machine guns in the metro stations of the capital.
When the Justice and Home Affairs Council of the EU approved a migrant relocation plan allowing the EU to mandate specific quotas for accepting refugees within member nations in the fall of 2015, Mr. Orbán planned to make a statement. The government announced that a national referendum, held on October 2, 2016, would be held to decide whether Hungary was to comply with the EU policy or not, posing the following question:
Do you want to allow the European Union to mandate the resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens to Hungary without the approval of the National Assembly?
Proponents of the EU quota policies faced an uphill battle given the wording of the proposition — few Hungarians would be willing to vote “yes” in a referendum so blatantly focused on the issue of diminishing national sovereignty within the EU, rather than on support for the policy in question.
A fear-driven campaign from the Hungarian right, supporting the negation of the proposition, gradually ensued. Fidesz drew upwards of $39 million in federal funds from December 2015 through the referendum date to power an informative ad campaign focused on the perils of refugee acceptance in Europe, crafting a tirade of billboards and TV advertisements to sway the Hungarian public. The messages of the ad campaign all followed a specific format with varying degrees of veracity:
Did you know? 1.5 million illegal immigrants moved to Europe in 2015.
Did you know? One million migrants want to come to Europe from Libya alone.
Did you know? Since the start of the migrant crisis, harassment of women in Europe has been increasingly dramatically.
Did you know? The Paris terrorist attacks were carried out by immigrants.
Did you know? Since the start of the migrant crisis, over 300 have died in European terrorist attacks.
Did you know? Brussels wants to settle a whole city’s worth of illegal immigrants into Budapest.
Protests against the xenophobic, half-baked truths were both ferocious and fractured. The Hungarian political left and center debated amongst themselves over the proper response to the referendum and rhetoric posed by their conservative counterparts.
Naturally, a joint campaign supporting the affirmation of the proposition would have been futile. A vast majority of the public stands behind Hungary’s right-wing parties, and the referendum question certainly didn’t beg a positive response from anyone. Most opposition parties threw their support behind a collective boycott against the referendum — Hungarian referendums require a turnout rate of at least 50 percent to be granted legitimacy. Hungary’s democratic, socialist, centrist, and green parties all urged voters to stay home on the day of the referendum — the absurdist political parody party, MKKP, asked voters to submit invalid ballots with both the “yes” and “no” options selected, crowdsourcing an opposition ad campaign suggesting that voters give “a stupid answer to a stupid question.” Only Hungary’s liberal party supported “yes” votes.
The efforts of the opposition may have paid off — the results of the poll were rendered invalid in accordance with Hungarian referendum regulations, as the turnout rate was barely over 44 percent. Of the valid votes, 98.36 percent were against the proposition. The MKKP saw considerable success with its parody campaign, with almost 12 percent of urban Budapest votes, 13 percent of foreign citizen votes, and 6 percent of overall votes cast invalidly.
While much of the foreign press reported a major setback to Fidesz the next day, Mr. Orbán declared a victory for the “no” campaign, citing only the portion of votes cast against the referendum’s proposition as evidence for the disapproval of the Hungarian public toward EU policies. Victorious advertisements sprawled across the front pages of Hungary’s pro-government newspapers, and pollsters soon showed gains in the portion of committed voters in favor of Fidesz on the order of 4 percent from September to October. Mr. Orbán followed his declaration with a proposal to change the Hungarian constitution in order to ban the mandated resettlement of immigrants.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker expressed the dismay of the EU in his remarks at a conference in Paris a few days later, warning, “It’s the beginning of the end if the fixed rule, democratically worked out, is no longer respected by the member states.”
Hungarian opposition parties have struggled to take the failure of Mr. Orbáns political gamble to their advantage. A few weeks after the referendum, Hungary’s main center-leftist newspaper, Népszabadság, was abruptly shut down, with relatively new higher-ups citing unprecedented financial reasons as the cause — much to the disagreement of its affiliated journalists. The termination of the newspaper’s print and online products closely followed its breaking of corruption allegations against senior government officials. Even as the Hungarian right falters and fumbles, there appears to be no bright future ahead for Hungary’s political balance.