Hungary Referendum To Reject EU Refugee Quotas Likely Invalid Due To Low Voter Turnout

In the latest push back against Merkel's imposing immigration policies, today Hungarians are voting in a referendum whether to accept mandatory EU quotas for relocating migrants. Prime Minister Viktor Orban opposes plans to relocate a total of 160,000 migrants across the bloc. Under the scheme Hungary would receive 1,294 asylum seekers. During last year's migrant crisis, Hungary became a transit state on the Western Balkan route to Germany and other EU destinations. In an effort to curb the influx, it sealed its border with Serbia and Croatia. The measure was popular at home but criticised by human rights groups.

To be sure, voters are expected to overwhelmingly reject the migrant quotas: moments ago exit polls forecast some 95% voting to reject the quotas, and only 5% voting for. However, turnout will likely be too low to make the vote valid, disappointing Prime Minister Viktor Orban. To be enforced, the turnout needs to be over 50% and with an hour and a half to go before the end of voting the figure was about 40%.

Voting will close at 1700 GMT. Preliminary results are expected after 1800 GMT. Orban also said his government could modify the Hungarian constitution after the vote.

While Orban and his rightwing Fidesz party are still likely to herald the vote as a victory at home, an invalid referendum would curb Orban's ability to exert pressure on Brussels to change its migration policies.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban casts his vote in the referendum

Cited by Reuters, Attila Juhasz, an analyst at thinktank Political Capital said "I think if turnout is around 40 percent, that is a fiasco for Viktor Orban and the government in international terms." Juhasz said they estimated turnout to be 44 to 46 percent based on currently available data.

An outspoken critic of Merkel's policies, Orban, in power since 2010, is among the toughest opponents of immigration in the EU, and over the past year has sealed Hungary's southern borders with a razor-wire fence and thousands of army and police border patrols.  After casting his vote in a wealthy Budapest district early on Sunday, Orban told reporters that he would go to Brussels next week to start talks, empowered by the referendum result.

"And I shall try, with the help of the outcome, if this is an appropriate outcome, to ensure that we should not be forced to accept in Hungary people we don't want to live with." He said what mattered was that votes rejecting the quotas should exceed the number of "Yes" votes.

In a letter published in a daily newspaper on Saturday, Orban again urged Hungarians to send a message to the EU that its migration policies posed a threat to Europe's security. "We can send the message that it is only up to us, European citizens, whether we can jointly force the Union to come to its senses or let it destroy itself," he wrote in the Magyar Idok.

Echoing a tension observed in other European countries, while Budapest says immigration policy should be a matter of national sovereignty, human rights groups have criticized the government for stoking fears and xenophobia, and for mistreating refugees on the border. Last year, hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East crossed Hungary on their way to richer countries in Western Europe. This year Hungary recorded around 18,000 illegal border crossings.

Orban's hardline approach on migration has won allies in Central Europe. Eastern Europe's ex-communist states, now in the EU, are opposing a policy that would require all EU countries to take in some of the hundreds of thousands of people seeking asylum in the bloc. Opinion polls show support for a rejection of EU migrant quotas of more than 80 percent among those who say they will vote.

Erzsebet Virag, voting near Budapest's eastern railway station where a year ago thousands of migrants camped outside waiting to get on trains toward Vienna, said:  "I voted (No) because there are a lot of poor people in our country too and if more poor people come in we will be even poorer and have to work even more."

Unfortunately for Orban, while nearly all of those voting will reject EU migrant quotes, the total number of people voting will not be enough for the vote to stick and leave an impact on Europe, meaning that at least for now, nothing will change.