Prime Minister Viktor Orban is asking Hungarians to reject quotas for the settlement of refugees in a referendum that may solidify his power at home and boost his leverage in an increasingly divided Europe. Polls show overwhelming support for a “no” vote backed by Orban, leaving turnout as the main hurdle for the premier, who needs at least 50 percent participation to make the referendum binding. The question on the ballot is “Do you want the European Union to be able to order the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without parliament’s consent?” European leaders have sought to show unity this month after a tumultuous year for the region, with the biggest wave of refugees since World War II and the U.K.’s vote to leave the EU tearing at the seams of the bloc. Orban has been the staunchest opponent of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy and he may use the vote to showcase support for his zero-immigration approach. The Hungarian prime minister is also looking to harness political momentum before parliamentary elections in 2018, where he’ll seek a third consecutive term.
“At home, Orban will probably cast himself in the role of protector of Hungary from hordes of refugees, no matter the turnout,” Otilia Dhand, a Brussels-based analyst at Teneo Intelligence, said by phone. “But his case on the European stage will be much stronger if the vote is valid.”
Unlike Merkel, who’s suffered a string of political defeats as she struggles to convince Germans to show solidarity, the Hungarian premier has linked immigration with terrorism and warned that refugees threatened local jobs and that Europe’s Christian identity was at risk. He has built a fence to repel migrants and spared no expense to hammer the message home through billboard campaigns and an increasingly obedient state-media empire. The measures helped him overcome a slump in polls last year and Orban’s Fidesz party now has more support than all opposition parties combined, according to a Median poll published Sept. 23.