Majority of Hungarians vote against EU migrant quotas but low turnout could nullify referendum

Hungarians voters appeared to support Prime Minister Viktor Orban's opposition to mandatory European Union quotas for accepting relocated asylum-seekers, but Sunday's referendum could be invalid because turnout would likely fail to exceed the 50-per cent-plus-one vote necessary threshold.

Ruling party says 95% of voters supported government's opposition to mandatory asylum quotas

Hungarian voters wearing traditional outfits of the Matyo are pictured at a polling station in Mezokoevesd, in eastern Hungary. (Ferenc Isza/AFP/Getty Images)

Hungarians voted Sunday in a referendum called by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government to seek support for its opposition to any future, mandatory European Union quotas for accepting relocated asylum-seekers.

The government's position was expected to find wide support among voters, but based on official data 90 minutes before voting stations were to close, analysts forecast the ballot would be invalid because voter turnout would likely fail to exceed the necessary threshold of 50 per cent plus one vote.

The referendum asks: "Do you want the European Union to be able to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary even without the consent of Parliament?"

Nearly 8.3 million citizens were eligible to cast ballots between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. local time. Turnout had reached 39.9 per cent by 5:30 p.m., the National Election Office said.

Based on that figure, analysts at the Political Capital research and consultancy institute projected final turnout between 43.9 and 45.9 per cent.

Ruling party declares 'sweeping victory'

Orban's Fidesz party claimed victory immediately after voting stations closed, saying its own projections based on exit polls showed that 95 per cent of voters supported the government position despite an expected turnout of only 45 per cent.

"Today is a sweeping victory for all those who reject the EU's mandatory, unlimited quotas," said Fidesz vice chairman Gergely Gulyas. "It is a sweeping victory for all those who believe that the foundations of a strong European Union can only be the strong nation states."

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban gets into his vehicle after casting his vote in Budapest. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

Orban has argued that "No" votes favour Hungary's sovereignty and independence. If that position secures a majority of ballots, Hungary's parliament would pass legislation to bolster the referendum's goal whether or not turnout was sufficient for a valid election, he said.

Orban also said he would resign if the "Yes" votes won, but the vow was seen mostly as a ploy to boost turnout by drawing his critics to the polls.

"The most important issue next week is for me to go to Brussels, hold negotiations and try with the help of this result — if the result if appropriate— achieve for it not to be mandatory to take in the kind of people in Hungary we don't want to," Orban said after casting his vote in an elementary school in the Buda hills.

Orban, who wants individual EU member nations to have more power in the bloc's decision-making process, said he hopes the anti-quota referendums would be held in other countries.

Voters file into a polling station in Budapest. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)

"We are proud that we are the first," he said. "Unfortunately, we are the only ones in the European Union who managed to have a (referendum) on the migrant issue. I would be happy to see other countries to follow."

Nearly 8.3 million citizens were eligible to cast ballots between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. local time on Sunday.

Polls show that the relentless campaign urging citizens to "send a message to Brussels" while associating migrants with terrorism has increased anti-migrant sentiments in Hungary.

Several opposition and civic groups have called on citizens to stay home and boycott the vote. Others urged casting invalid ballots that would not count in the final tally, but still could be interpreted as rejecting the government's "zero migrants" policies.

Hungary mainly a transit country

Nearly 400,000 migrants passed through Hungary last year while making their way toward Western Europe. Razor-wire fences erected on the border with Serbia and Croatia, along with new expulsion policies, have reduced the numbers significantly this year.

Last month, police reported either zero or just one migrant breaching Hungary's border area on 13 different days.

Hungary last year rejected over 80 per cent of the asylum claims made in the country, one of the highest rates in the EU, according to Eurostat, the EU's statistical office. The country granted asylum to 508 refugees, rejected 2,917 applications and had nearly 37,000 claims still being processed.

Members of a local election commission start counting votes after the polling station closed in the first district of Budapest, Hungary, on Sunday. (Zsolt Szigetvary/MTI via AP)

Hungary playing 'dangerous game'

The president of the European Parliament is accusing Hungary of playing a "dangerous game" by holding the referendum. 

Martin Schulz said in an interview published Sunday that Hungary would have to take in about 2,000 migrants under the quotas.

Schulz told Germany's Funke newspaper group that the referendum challenges the legitimacy of European laws. He also suggested that countries that fail to show solidarity with the rest of the EU on the migrant issue may see their financial support from the bloc cut.

Schulz called on European leaders to make clear to Eastern European countries that "solidarity isn't a one-way street," but rejected calls to eject Hungary from the EU.