Hungary's Orban seen staying on migrant issue after EU vote

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Hungary's prime minister is expected to keep migration as a key issue on his agenda after low turnout invalidated a referendum against EU refugee quotas that nonetheless received nearly unanimous backing for the government's position, analysts said Monday.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party will use voters' aversion to migrants to distract from unpleasant matters like corruption and difficulties in the health sector, according to Csaba Toth, strategic director of the Republikon Institute think tank.

Orban "can see that the majority of the voters in the country agree with him, even if they don't actually go and vote and support him and even though they might not like him," Toth said. "Any other agenda — health care, education or the corruption scandals of the government — would be a bigger problem for him."

Support for the referendum opposing future EU schemes to relocate asylum seekers among EU countries with mandatory quotas exceeded 98 percent. But only 40.4 percent of eligible voters cast valid ballots, far below the 50 percent-plus-one-vote threshold required for the results to be official.

On Monday, Orban said that the 3.3 million voters who wanted Hungary to have the final say about taking in asylum seekers constituted sufficient political capital for him to propose a constitutional amendment "reflecting the spirit of the referendum."

The outcome of the balloting also gives him a "strong enough weapon" to take to Brussels to make Hungary's case against future EU quotas.

Orban noted that more Hungarians had voted against the quotas than the number who cast ballots in favor of joining the EU in 2003.

While the low turnout and a large number of disqualified ballots could be attributed in part to the work of the referendum's critics, analysts said Hungary's opposition parties may see only limited gains.

The referendum's lack of validity "will not translate into increased popularity or more votes for the opposition," Tamas Boros from the Policy Solutions research firm said. "It could, however, give them some room to talk about issues which do not favor Fidesz."