STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Hungary's referendum on refugees didn't work out as its organizers had planned. Hungary, you may recall, is one of the European countries that is politically torn by the arrival of refugees in Europe. But a vote on whether to accept refugees was declared invalid due to low voter turnout. Well, what does that mean?
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is covering this story. She's in Budapest. Hi, Soraya.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What exactly were Hungarians voting on?
NELSON: Well, the way the ballot read was whether they were in favor or against the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary. And that is definitely not what Brussels was proposing. What they wanted to do was relocate - maybe relocate, and only temporarily so - 1,300 refugees just to help give some relief to other countries that were having issues with large numbers coming in.
INSKEEP: OK, so there wasn't actually a specific proposal to force refugees or anybody else to be permanently resettled in Hungary. But they voted. How did people vote?
NELSON: Well, overwhelmingly, more than 90 percent of those who did cast ballots voted against the E.U. doing this - against having non-Hungarian citizens permanently resettled, as they call it, into Hungary. The reason which is very much controversial not just in Hungary, but across Europe is that - and what voters were telling me is that this is a Christian country here, and they want it undiluted by immigrants and that they want to preserve the Hungarian culture.
INSKEEP: OK, you said, of the people who voted, more than 90 percent voted to keep other people out of Hungary. But this was declared invalid?
NELSON: Yeah, absolutely. They had less than 50 percent of the voters turning out, and a little bit more than 50 percent would have to turn out in order for it to be valid. And so the reason for that is a bit political as it turns out. Analysts I spoke to here say that it could signal that, basically, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's party using the migration crisis as a way to bolster support is starting to backfire.
Like many Hungarians, Central European University professor Szabolcs Pogonyi showed his displeasure with the referendum by staying home.
SZABOLCS POGONYI: It seems that this quota system will not work anyways.
NELSON: He says even in the unlikely event the EU had forced member states to take in refugees, they wouldn't have stayed in Hungary anyway. He predicts they would head to Germany or Sweden where life would be better for them.
But another 6 percent of the referendum's opponents made a point of going to the polls to deliver a harsher message by casting defaced ballots. Many were guided by the Two-Tailed Dog, a satirical political party headed by Monty Python enthusiast Gergely Kovacs.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
GERGELY KOVACS: (Foreign language spoken).
NELSON: The 36-year-old graphic designer offered helpful tips to disgruntled voters on YouTube.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
KOVACS: (Foreign language spoken).
NELSON: He says a quick and efficient way to invalidate a ballot is to spray lighter fluid onto it and set it on fire. Kovacs suggests, "burn it nice and easy and make sure you don't set the voting booth on fire."
Twenty-nine-year-old voter Alexandra says she watched the video. Fearing repercussions, she won't give her last name. Alexandra cast her ballot at a busy polling station in Budapest's business district, where chatty poll workers stamped her ballot and pointed her to a makeshift voting booth. Alexandra says she checked both the yes and no boxes to invalidate her ballot.
ALEXANDRA: I wanted to show that I do agree with the democratic views and I do want to be part of the referendum, but the question is stupid.
NELSON: Kovacs of the Two-Tailed Dog agreed. His party, which has pledged free beer and spaceports if it is ever elected, crowdsourced a $150,000 billboard and poster campaign across Hungary to counter the referendum.
He says they used humor to negate the fear stirred up by the campaign by Prime Minister Orban, which became known by its opening question - did you know? The campaign's posters and billboards warned of horrific consequences in allowing asylum seekers into Europe, such as the fictitious no-go zones in major European cities and implying refugees were involved in the terror attacks in Brussels and Paris.
Another Kovacs favorite was one warning that a million Libyans were headed to Europe. The Two-Tailed Dog version pointed out a million Hungarians who are immigrating within the EU in search of jobs are headed to Europe, too.
KOVACS: You know, our government is always trying to find enemies because he always wants to give something to the people who they can hate instead of the government. First, the opposition was the enemy. Later came the homeless, the gay, the drug users, the foreign companies, the EU, the banks - it's a very long list. And I think Viktor Orban is the happiest guy in the world because of this migration because it could find a new enemy.
NELSON: While a government spokesman discounted Two-Tailed Dog's impact on the vote, Mussa Kilam, an Eritrean refugee and activist here, says the party gives him hope.
MUSSA KILAM: And for me, for first time to see young Hungarian doing this in the street, like putting this poster, I feel like good feeling like, oh, wow, that's - that's good, really.
NELSON: I asked his Iranian friend Behrooz - a refugee and activist who locally only goes by his first name - which of the satirical party's billboards was his favorite. He tells me it's the one that captures most simply how ridiculous the referendum was.
BEHROOZ: And the poster goes like - did you know? - and in capital letters says, no (laughter).
INSKEEP: Soraya, how worried are refugees about their future?
NELSON: Well, they're very concerned, especially after this referendum. I mean, it was invalid. But when you have such an overwhelming number of Hungarians voting against them, basically - even if it's an invalid vote, it's something that they're very concerned about. They're worried, especially here in Hungary, where you now have fences that make it hard for asylum seekers to come in, and there's increasingly overt verbal abuse and just sort of xenophobia that's being stirred by this referendum. They're concerned that this is going to get worse, that you're going to have worsening border conditions, more fences going up and eventually refugee camps closing, which is going to leave them with no place to go.
INSKEEP: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Budapest. Soraya, thanks.
NELSON: You're welcome, Steve.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.