On Sunday October 2nd, Hungarian voters were asked to decide in a national referendum whether or not Viktor Orban and his Fidesz-dominated government should refuse EU-mandated quotas of resettled Syrian strangers. Whether they are mostly refugees or mostly economic migrants is itself politically contested.
Overwhelmingly, those who voted said no. However, in a confusing twist, too few Hungarians voted for it to count.
The strangers to be reallocated, the migrants, were the one million plus apparently homeless people pushed into Europe last year, 2015, by Turkey’s government – seemingly as a negotiating tool. To be fair to Turkey, there appear to be at least two million migrants of uncertain origin living in camps now in that country. To be unfair to Turkey again, it’s now clear their government has been (along with others) funding and supplying ISIS, or Da’esh, one of the nastier groups in Syria’s increasingly complicated civil war, and this war is what is moving people out of that region.
The million-plus migrants turned out to be, by many accounts, from a variety of peaceful countries, not just war-torn Syria. When I met & interviewed some of them squatting for many days last summer in front of Budapest’s Keleti railway station, I found cheerful Iranians, Afghans, some Turks, plus a few Syrians. Sympathetic aid workers mentioned to me that quite a number were gay men from villages across all those countries fleeing the rough treatment some types of provincial Islam can mete out towards anyone suspected of homosexuality.
Once out of Turkey and on EU soil, in Greece, this mass of not-entirely-wretched humanity was then pushed northward by the Greek authorities. This was both understandable and lamentable. Understandable because Greece’s euro-indebted government was right then being given a hard time in talks with the “troika” of creditors led by Germany. Lamentable because, even in a nasty squabble between fellow EU members, you aren’t really supposed to use hundreds of thousands of destitute people as bargaining chips. (Copy to Turkey, supposedly a NATO ally of both Greece and the rest of us.) Bargaining chips perhaps infiltrated by terrorists. Not to mention infiltrated by triumphalist Muslims shouting how they intend to use Europe without assimilating into their new host countries.
Angela Merkel, who seemed to be at a difficult point in talks with the increasingly unhinged President Erdogan of Turkey, had the brainwave of issuing a blanket invitation for all apparent refugees pushing their way through borders at the edge of the EU and into the Balkans to come and settle in Germany. This effectively rewarded them for having travelled that far already. It made their presence in Europe a fait accompli.
A wave of young new immigrants made a certain amount of sense for Germany, a country whose pensions crisis and imbalance between older state dependents and younger taxpayers is worse than most of Europe’s. Demographically younger countries by contrast, like Poland, or Slovakia, were absolutely furious. Countries in the Balkans struggling to cope with the wave of strangely confident, oddly untraumatised, migrants were angry too.
Bavaria (long one of the most independent-minded nations within Bismarck’s unified Germany) was livid with Merkel. Austria – another paving stone on the long trek to reach the welfare gardens of Germany, Sweden, and Britain – was seriously unamused. Macedonia, not the most politically stable regime, got right down to business and met this new threat to their stability with straightforward fisticuffs & beatings. In their defence, Macedonia, a small nation of barely two million, became seriously chaotic when 360,000 Albanian refugees entered their country during the 1999 Kosovo war in neighbouring Serbia. (The equivalent in Britain would be 10 million hungry people suddenly turning up.) Doubtless the Macedonians had no intention of seeing that crisis repeated. Several months of brawls, fistfights, and scrapping with sticks and stones between migrants and border guards at the edge of what’s still officially titled The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia might have influenced the northbound human tide. In any case, it started shifting eastwards to surge over the Bulgarian/Romanian border by preference.
Almost 400,000 migrants from Syria – or somewhere – passed through Hungary last year on their way north to greener pastures, and Hungarians take great pride in their hospitality. Ordinary people were generous to their temporary guests. At the same time, Hungarians also deeply resent the 150-year Turkish Ottoman occupation of the 16th and 17th centuries with a passion that surprises visitors. They feel (as do the Serbs, Bulgarians, Romanians, and Greeks) that Ottoman Islamic rule held their country back, handicapping it at a vital turning point in history, and doomed it to second-class status in the modern world.
This is the context for Viktor Orban last autumn having fences built along sections of Hungary’s borders to the south, with embarrassed but tacit support from nearly the entire country. It’s also the background to Sunday’s vote. That vote was meant to give Orban licence to oppose efforts by Brussels to redistribute Merkel’s million-strong guest list across all EU countries.
On the face of it, the referendum showed an enormous majority of Hungarians voting against the EU’s compulsory migrant quota. 3.3 million voted ‘No’, and only 50,000 voted ‘Yes’ – a majority of over 98%. However, fewer than half the electorate voted, 50% being the required threshold. In fact just under 43 and a half per cent of voters cast valid votes. Orban tetchily pointed out that 98.3% out of 43.4% voting at all was not far from 83.8% out of 45.6% of the electorate. That second number was the Hungarian vote in 2003 to join the European Union in the first place, a percentage back then judged valid and sufficient.
220,000 ballot papers were spoiled (over four times the size of the ‘Yes’ vote), reflecting a deliberate campaign by anti-Fidesz groups in Hungary. Their canny calculation was probably that almost everyone in Hungary supports Orban on this topic, but those embarrassed to vote for or against resettling migrants could save their liberal consciences by either showily abstaining or even more ostentatiously going out to vote but then defacing their ballot forms. This might then bring the vote below the required threshold. Exactly as in fact happened. Someone today told me proudly how his brother yesterday drew smiley faces all over his voting slip.
This astute campaign to keep turnout low was led notably by the Two-Tailed Dog Party. This is an originally satirical joke movement (not unlike Britain’s venerable Raving Loonies) that has recently started to behave as if it actually wants to put forward real political views, even if quirkily or wittily worded.
The Two-Tailed Dog Party, with its graffiti-style marketing and emblematic tie-wearing dog, is careful to maintain its credibility with young voters. It styles itself as a casual, almost accidental, movement – rejecting any hint of earnest ideology. For example, its founders originally wanted to set up a party, but then (the story goes) all went for a drink instead. One recent billboard of theirs carried, written large in English, the disarmingly jocular words ‘Hi Brussels, We Still Love Your Money!’ with the yellow and red strapline ‘For A Stupid Question A Stupid Answer! – Vote Invalidly!’ in smaller Hungarian text at the bottom. That second line was the Two-Tailed Dog slogan throughout this campaign. Many Hungarians were happy to oblige. Just as some British Remain supporters in June poignantly said they wish the referendum had never happened – plenty of Budapesters in Sunday’s vote were uncomfortable about giving any answer and deep down preferred not to be asked.
Knowing that a phalanx of stoutly xenophobic villagers stood ready to give a clear ‘No’ on their behalf, made it especially easy for liberal urbanites to not vote at all. They knew Orban and the villagers will probably stop migrants entering the country in any case, so Budapest’s bobos – bourgeois Bohemians – can get the result they secretly wanted without being seen to say anything racist or pro-Orban.
Suggesting to urban Hungarians that doing nothing is a political stand for the moral high ground was shrewd.
Mark Griffith keeps a weblog at http://www.otherlanguages.org
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