BUDAPEST—Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a leading backer of tighter immigration rules in the European Union, suffered a setback as a majority of Hungarian voters skipped a national referendum he had called to gauge support.
Turnout was below 40%, preliminary results showed, far short of the 50% threshold needed to make a referendum binding. Authorities said a large number of votes were invalid and counted as no shows.
More than 98% of those who took part in the ballot backed Mr. Orban and rejected an EU plan to relocate refugees under a mandatory quota system, officials said. Mr. Orban said it sent a clear signal to Brussels that EU members should be given full control over migration.
“We should be proud to be the first EU country to have expressed our views,” he said.
Sunday’s referendum was closely watched because Mr. Orban has taken the lead in campaigning against the open-door policy of several EU countries since hundreds of thousands of people from the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa crossed into the Continent last year.
He has clashed repeatedly with other EU leaders, notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has made the acceptance of refugees a cornerstone of her policy.
European Parliament Speaker Martin Schulz said the vote was “a dangerous game,” according to an interview published Sunday by German daily Berliner Morgenpost, because it challenged the legality of European lawmaking.
But Ms. Merkel’s approach has suffered setbacks at home, where an upstart anti-immigration movement outpolled her ruling conservative party in a recent state election and now has seats in 10 state parliaments.
In France, opinion polls show that National Front’s leader Marine Le Pen will easily qualify for the final-round runoff in next year’s presidential election, in a large part thanks to widespread adhesion to her anti-immigration platform.
Binding or not, the Hungarian referendum will have little immediate consequence on EU migration policy because Brussels has largely backed off trying to force through measures for greater burden-sharing among member countries.
Resistance to the relocation program in Hungary, and most Central and Eastern European countries, has led EU authorities to consider ways to better tighten the bloc’s border while continuing to support asylum seekers, especially war refugees from Syria.
Mr. Orban says migrants represent a security threat because some Islamist radicals have made their way into the EU by posing as refugees.
Although Hungary’s working population is expected to shrink by more than 10% over the next four years, the central bank estimates, Mr. Orban objects to allowing large numbers of refugees, especially Muslims, to settle in the country, saying they would threaten its ethnic cohesion.
At issue, he said in his Sunday address, is “who we want to coexist with, what will happen to our culture, our way of life, our hard-earned economic recovery, and what will happen to our Christian roots.”
Left-leaning opposition party Egyutt said the outcome of the ballot was tantamount to a no-confidence vote. The far-right Jobbik Party, the second-most-popular party after Mr. Orban’s ruling Fidesz Party, called for the premier’s resignation.
In office since 2010, the prime minister has a solid majority in Parliament and enjoys high approval ratings.
contributed to this article.
Write to Margit Feher at email@example.com
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