Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban's crusade against the European Union's migration policy fumbled on a technicality Sunday when a referendum on the EU refugee resettlement quota for the country failed to achieve the required 50-per-cent turnout.
Only 39.9 per cent of the electorate cast votes in the referendum, election officials said with 99.8 per cent of ballots counted.
But the outcome was nevertheless pleasing to Orban because of those who cast their ballots, 98.3 per cent - 3.2 million voters - rejected the EU quota.
"We achieved an excellent result," Orban said in a speech to supporters of his governing Fidesz party, referring to the outcome as a "weapon that will be rather sharp in Brussels."
He made no mention of the referendum being invalid.
Earlier Sunday, Fidesz party vice president Gergely Gulyas spoke of a "landslide victory" in the referendum.
"We can rightly say that this is an overwhelming victory for all who reject the immigration quotas, who believe that only the strong nation-states endure, who believe in democracy," Gulyas said.
Far-left EU parliamentarian Gabi Zimmer called the outcome an "own goal" for Orban.
"Despite his hate campaign, the half-truths and spreading lies against people who have fled, despite a country-wide roadshow by allies to his party, less than half of Hungarians supported Orban's referendum," said Zimmer, chairwoman of the left faction in the EU parliament.
The co-chairwoman of the Green faction in the EU parliament, Rebecca Harms, also described the result as a defeat for Orban.
"The Hungarian prime minister has failed with his anti-refugee campaign," Harms said. "This allows for hope even if only a few votes were cast for taking in refugees."
Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told dpa the Hungarian people have shown they are more European than Orban's govenment.
"This is not a good day for Orban and not such a bad day for Hungary and the EU," Asselborn said.
Initiated by Orban's conservative government, the "Yes" or "No" referendum asked the country's 8 million eligible voters: "Do you want the European Union to be able, without consulting [the Hungarian] parliament, to decree the compulsory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary?"
Under a plan approved by a majority of EU member states last year, the bloc is aiming to resettle 160,000 asylum seekers stranded in Italy and Greece across the bloc, with 1,300 assigned to Hungary.
Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and the Czech Republic all voted against the plan. Hungary has not yet accepted any of its quota and is suing the European Union in the European Court of Justice over the redistribution plan.
In a months-long campaign with xenophobic and alarmist undertones, the Fidesz party had campaigned for a "no" vote in Sunday's referendum.
Orban had repeatedly stressed the importance of a valid referendum for his "fight against Brussels bureaucracy," but he backtracked Sunday morning when he cast his vote in a residential district in Budapest.
Orban told reporters waiting in front of the voting station that, whether the vote was rendered valid or not, his right-wing government would act.
"We have always said that only the Hungarian parliament can decide with whom the Hungarian people want to live," Orban said. "And that is what we will legally establish."