MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In Hungary today, voters went to the polls to consider a measure to stop the European Union from relocating a small number of refugees to that central European country. Some 93 percent of the Hungarians who cast votes today rejected the measure, but the measure was declared invalid today because of poor voter turnout. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Budapest.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: A small but steady trickle of Hungarians came to this polling station in the business district where smiling election workers stamp their ballots and pointed them to makeshift voting booths. Their task was simple - answer this question posed by the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Do you want the European Union to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary? Yes or no. An overwhelming number checked no and dropped their ballot into a waste-bin-shaped box.
Orban's allies declared victory, but the referendum was rendered invalid because only 2 in 5 eligible voters showed up, a minimum 50 percent plus one vote was needed for it to pass. Zoltan Kovacs is the Hungarian government spokesman. He says even though it's invalid, the referendum wasn't a waste of time or money.
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ZOLTAN KOVACS: We believe it's going to be a clear message, a message that cannot be disregarded, neither by the Hungarian government nor by any European institution.
NELSON: Never mind that the year-old EU plan to temporarily relocate some 1,300 refugees to Hungary has been off the table for some time. Many voters agreed with their prime minister that Hungarians had to send Brussels a message.
YULIA UHAS: I voted no.
NELSON: That's Yulia Uhas (ph). The reason the 64 year old gave me is one I heard from a lot of older voters today. Hungary must stay Christian and undiluted by immigration.
UHAS: (Speaking Hungarian).
NELSON: Uhas adds in Hungarian, let the EU take steps to care for the mostly young and single males pouring into Europe back in their homelands. Social worker Ilona Kovacs (ph), who also voted no, agrees.
ILONA KOVACS: (Speaking Hungarian).
NELSON: She tells me she wants her children and grandchildren to grow up in their own culture. But younger Hungarians I interviewed were embarrassed by the xenophobia. Thousands heeded the call of an opposition party called Two-tailed Dog to cast invalid votes by marking both yes and no on the ballots. The party on its Facebook site said it received more than 3,000 photos of defaced ballots their supporters cast. One who heeded the satire-loving party's call was 29-year-old Alexandra (ph). She was afraid to give me her last name for fear of repercussions.
ALEXANDRA: This referendum is perfectly unnecessary, so that's why I voted this way.
NELSON: For refugees, the government's push to demonize them is no laughing matter. Very few asylum-seekers are being allowed in Hungary these days, and human rights activists report hundreds of would-be refugees are languishing in deplorable conditions behind razor-wire fences on the southern border. One advocate who's known locally by his first name, Beruse (ph), and who is a refugee from Iran says he worries the invalidated referendum will hasten the government's plan to close all refugee reception centers in Hungary.
That would mean the 2,000 or so asylum-seekers who remain here awaiting the outcome of their cases could face worse living conditions than they do now.
BERUSE: It is going to be more scarier especially for those refugees that are going to be in countrysides.
NELSON: He says xenophobia is more pronounced in small Hungarian towns and villages where many people have never met a refugee before. The prime minister got the highest level of support from those areas. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Budapest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.