Oct 02, 2016

History of referenda in Hungary shows that voter turnout rarely meets the threshold

The results of today’s referendum will not be clear until after the polls close at 7 p.m., but if past experience is any indicator, Hungary’s experience with voting in important referendums has been mixed.

After the polling stations close, official vote counters will sift through the thousands of papers to determine whether Hungary will accept the forced migration quotas imposed upon them by the European Union.

The referendum will have important impact on the future of Hungary, its national sovereignty and culture, and it also carries important implications for Europe.

Recent polls have shown that up to 70 or 80 percent of Hungarians are with the government in rejecting the EU’s migration quotas, but the burning question is how many voters will venture out and cast a ballot today.

Even if less than 50 percent of voters decide to show up, the government may proceed in the direction according to the dominant answer. Nevertheless, the Hungarian government is hoping that today’s vote will buck the trend of poor referenda turnouts to enable them a platform on which to fight the EU’s radical migration policies.

Figures pulled from past referenda, however, show that they typically fail to secure the required number of voters – more than half of those eligible – to ensure their legitimacy.

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To reach the level of 50 percent plus one of the total number of eligible voters, 4,136,314 to be exact, have to cast a valid vote and more than 50 percent of them have to vote on the same answer.

In Hungary, referenda are rare: in the past three decades, only seven referenda were held:

In 1989, before the first democratic elections, a referendum was held on four questions: the first regarding whether the president of the republic should be elected after the democratic elections are held and three on the role of the Communist Party. It was successful in all four questions.

In 1990, a plebiscite was held on whether or not the president of the republic should be elected directly. With a record low turnout – only 14 percent of the eligible voters showed up – the referendum was unsuccessful.

On November 16, 1997, the people of Hungary voted on whether to join NATO. To guarantee the referendum a success, Parliament modified the laws.

According to the new regulations at this time, only 25 percent of the eligible voters had to vote on the winning answer to ensure the referendum was valid (regardless of the total turnout). It was an important modification, as only 49 percent of the eligible voters showed up, although 85 percent of them voted for the cause.

The next referendum was on April 12, 2003, where Hungarians voted on the country joining the European Union. As most of the negotiations were carried out by the first Fidesz-government (1998-2002) and closed by the subsequent MSZP government, both major parties campaigned in support of Hungary joining the EU.

Despite these efforts, only 45.62 percent of the eligible voters showed up, a disappointment in Europe, even though 83.76 percent of them voted pro-membership.

On December 5, 2004, a referendum was held on whether it should be made easier for ethnic Hungarians living outside the Hungarian borders to acquire citizenship in Hungary.

Despite an extensive publicity campaign, only 37.49 percent of the voters showed up and even though the ‘Yes’ won, the referendum was unsuccessful due to the low turnout.

The last referendum before today was held March 9, 2008, on the initiation of Fidesz, called the “social referendum,” against the Socialist government’s measure to introduce fees for higher education and healthcare.

The referendum participation was just slightly over 50 percent, (50.4 percent), with more than 82 percent of the voters showing up voted against the austerity measures.

If you look at Hungary’s history in referendums highlighted above they have been rare and rarely successful.

Various forecasts have put forth predictions on today’s turnout, but they vary widely. By 1 p.m., 23.56 percent of eligible voters cast a vote (a valid vote or an invalid vote), which is slightly more than the participation in 2003 (22.57 percent) and more than the turnout in 2004 (18.5 percent), but less than the participation in the 2008 referendum (26.92 percent), as recorded at the same time on those voting days.

Stay tuned to for the referendum results.