BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Low voter turnout invalidated Hungary's referendum on European Union refugee quotas, even though citizens voted overwhelmingly in support of the government's opposition to any future, mandatory EU plans to relocate asylum-seekers.
The government claimed a "sweeping victory," but analysts said that the result was an "embarrassing but not totally catastrophic defeat" for Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
"We can be proud that we are the first and so far only member state of the European Union" to hold such a referendum, Orban told supporters after the results were known. "Hungarians were able to give their direct opinions on the issue of immigration."
Orban, who did not mention at all that the referendum was officially invalid, said he would present a proposal to amend the Constitution reflecting people's intentions. Orban, a right-wing populist, has challenged the EU's refugee policy, arguing that allowing the influx of larger numbers of Muslim migrants into Europe threatens Hungary and Europe's Christian identity and culture.
"The (European) Union's proposal is to let the migrants in and distribute them in mandatory fashion among the member states and for Brussels to decide about this distribution," Orban said. "Hungarians today considered this proposal and they rejected it. Hungarians decided that only us Hungarians can decide whom we want to live with."
"The question was 'Brussels or Budapest' and we decided this issue is exclusively the competence of Budapest," the prime minister said.
With 99.98 percent of the votes counted, more than 3.25 million voters — or 98.3 of those who cast valid ballots — backed the government. But turnout stood at 43.9 percent, the National Election Office said. At least 50 percent plus one of Hungary's 8.27 million voters needed to cast valid ballots for the referendum to be valid.
Nearly 4 percent of the votes were spoiled — twice as many as in any of the other four referenda held since 1997 — driving down the number of valid votes to 40.1 percent.
The referendum asked: "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?"
Orban's Fidesz party claimed victory immediately after voting stations closed, with party vice chairman Gergely Gulyas saying it was a "sweeping victory for all those who reject the EU's mandatory, unlimited quotas."
At the same time, analysts said the relentless government campaign against the EU's refugee relocation schemes had oversaturated citizens.
"Orban was able to dominate public discourse with an issue in which the majority was on his side," said Tamas Boros, an analyst at Policy Solutions, a political research and consultancy firm. "But it seems he went too far and overestimated how much people's opinions are transformed into votes."
With a weak opposition in parliament and practically limitless campaign spending to promote the government position, the referendum's lack of validity was considered distressing for the government.
"Considering there was hardly any counter-campaign, that they spent some 50 million euros ($56.1 million) and everyone on the right took up the issues wholeheartedly, it's an embarrassing but not totally catastrophic defeat for Orban," Boros said. "It is his first national defeat since 2006, the first time in a decade that the prime minister cannot impose his will."
Orban argued that "No" votes favored Hungary's sovereignty and independence.
Orban, who wants individual EU member nations to have more power in the bloc's decision-making process, said he hopes anti-quota referendums would be held in other countries.
The invalid result because of the low turnout would make Orban's quest to persuade Brussels to drop the refugee quotas more difficult.
"With an invalid result, it is harder for Orban to claim he holds all the aces" against Brussels, Boros said. "The EU will see that while there is a majority against the quota, it's not the most important issue for Hungarians."
Separately from the referendum, the Orban government is also suing at the European Court of Justice because of the EU's 2015 decision to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from overburdened Greece and Italy. Under the original plan, 1,294 asylum seekers would be moved to Hungary.
Polls show that the relentless campaign urging citizens to "send a message to Brussels" while associating migrants with terrorism has increased xenophobia 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.
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 percent 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.