The extraordinary outcome of the Hungarian referendum last Sunday about the supposed plan to settle a definite number of migrants in the country is that everyone is claiming victory.
Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister, has claimed victory because 98 per cent of those who voted did so to reject the EU plan. The EU's various politicians and spokespersons have claimed victory because the low turn-out meant the vote was legally invalid though it is not clear what it could have achieved in legal terms. The Economist is celebrating because the low turn-out is a defeat for populism despite the high level of vote for Orbán's proposal and despite his assertion that he will now take steps to change the Hungarian constitution to take account of the vote. The Economist is, in fact, trampling triumphantly, or so they think on Mr Orbán and his reputation in Europe.
All this triumphalism is problematic. One can see why Prime Minister Orbán's assertion of victory is a problem with a turn-out of about 44 per cent and valid votes at about 40 per cent. On the other hand, turn-out has never bothered EU politicians or their acolytes before. Indeed, this is the first time I have seen publication of the proportion of spoilt ballot papers. In other elections, such as the ones for the European Parliament, such matters are passed by without any comment. Besides, abstention is not the same as voting against. If Mr Orbán's proposals were that unpopular why did people not turn out to vote on the other side? Could it be that the motivaation was somewhat different and there was a fear that the EU might punish the country if it voted the “wrong” way? There were people who disliked Orbán's idea of a referendum but did not entirely disagree with the notion that the National Assembly should be making decisions of this kind, not the EU. And there were many who thought that as this matter is not in the Hungarian government's competence, there ought not to be a referendum about it.
There is another interesting detail that is being carefully avoided by both sides. Mr Orbán, as it happens, did refer to the referendum thirteen years ago when Hungary voted to join the European Union. He has pointed out that the vote this time was higher than in 2003. Those rejoicing in the non-legality of the 2016 referendum did not refer to the previous one for good reason: that, too, was illegal as the turn-out was under 50 per cent but, somehow, nobdody at the time bothered to talk about it.
Results in 2016 were: turn-out 43.42 per cent, that is 3,561,735 out of an electorate of 8,272,625 and as we knowjust under 4 per cent of the votes were deemed spoilt. The question was: “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?” 98.34 per cent of those who turned out, that is 3,282,928 voted no and 1.66 per cent, that is 55,555 voted yes.These figures do not seem to include the spoilt ballot papers and they prove nothing because a 50 per cent turn-out is required and the government had been hoping for a 70 per cent one.
Let us now look at the 2003 referendum, the one that proved oh so joyfully that Hungarians overwhelmingly wanted to join the European Union. Then, too, a 70 per cent turn-out was hoped for and a 50 per cent one required constitutionally. They got 45.6 per cent, that is, 3,666,715 out of an electorate 8,042,272. We were not told about the spoilt ballot papers amidst the general rejoicing that the Hungarians voted the “right” way. 83.8 per cent, that is 3,056,027 voted for and 16.2 per cent, that is 592,690 voted against.It is hardly surprising that there is little reference to those somewhat embarrassing figures.