BUDAPEST • Hungarians yesterday began voting on the European Union's refugee quota plan in a referendum aimed at boosting Prime Minister Viktor Orban's self-styled campaign to defend Europe against the "threat of mass migration".
His "No" camp is likely to win, but the poll could still end in embarrassment for Mr Orban if it fails to reach the required 50 per cent turnout and is deemed invalid.
The results are expected today.
"We are proud that we are the first to be able to vote on this question, unfortunately the only ones," Mr Orban said after casting his ballot in the capital Budapest.
He has become the populist standard-bearer for those opposed to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's "open door" policy as the bloc faces its worst migration crisis since 1945.
He led a fierce media offensive urging Hungarians to spurn the EU deal, which aims to "share" migrants between the 28 member states through mandatory quotas without the consent of national parliaments.
Mr Orban warned last Saturday that mass migration was a "threat... to Europe's safe way of life" and that Hungarians had "a duty" to fight the failed "liberal methods" of the "Brussels elite".
The proposal - spearheaded by Germany and approved by most EU governments last year after heavy debate - seeks to ease pressure on Italy and Greece, the entry points for most migrants to the EU.
But implementation has been slow. Eastern and central European nations are strongly opposed to the plan to relocate 160,000 people, many of whom fled war in Syria.
Hungary has not accepted a single refugee from its allocated 1,300. Instead, it has joined Slovakia in filing a legal challenge against the plan.
The referendum has incensed Western leaders and could further split the bloc, already weakened by Britain's decision in June to leave the union, which Mr Orban has blamed on the EU's handling of the crisis.
European Parliament president Martin Schulz warned yesterday that Hungary "played a dangerous game". To cement his power at home, Mr Orban "plays with the EU's founding principle. He questions Europe's legal basis - which Hungary was involved in creating", Mr Schulz told German media.
The referendum asks voters: "Do you want the EU to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?"
Critics slammed the government for asking a leading question and whipping up xenophobia despite the lack of asylum-seekers in Hungary. Many said they would abstain in protest.
"I will not be a pawn in Orban's game... The question is phrased in such a way that it practically invites only one answer," said one voter at a polling station in Budapest.
Analysts say the referendum provides a testing ground for the scheduled 2018 general election, in which immigration will be a key issue.
Over 400,000 refugees trekked through Hungary to northern Europe last year before Budapest sealed off the southern borders and rolled out tough anti-migrant laws.
Other countries on the Balkan migrant trail followed suit, leaving 60,000 migrants stranded in Greece. The EU said last Wednesday that it hoped to relocate half of them by the end of next year.