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Big majority of Hungarians rejected migrant quotas but vote looks invalid

BUDAPEST An overwhelming majority of Hungarians who voted in Sunday's referendum rejected the European Union's migrant quotas as Prime Minister Viktor Orban had urged, but the estimated turnout of 45 percent will not be enough to make the vote valid.

Senior politicians from Orban's ruling Fidesz party declared victory shortly after voting finished at 1700 GMT, citing exit polls which they said showed 95 percent of Hungarian voters, or more than 3 million people, had rejected the quotas.

A minimum turnout of 50 percent of eligible voters casting a valid vote was needed for the vote to be valid. An invalid referendum could diminish Orban's ability to exert pressure on Brussels to change its migration policies.

"Based on these data we can rightfully say that today has brought a sweeping victory for all those who reject the forced resettlement (of migrants) ... and for those who believe that the foundations of a strong EU can only be strong nations," Fidesz lawmaker and the party's vice chairman Gergely Gulyas told a news conference.

Orban is expected to make a speech later tonight, after preliminary results come in.

Radical right opposition party Jobbik said the referendum was "a fiasco" and called on Orban to resign if the vote proves invalid.

Orban, in power since 2010, is among the toughest opponents of immigration in the EU, and over the past year has sealed Hungary's southern borders with a razor-wire fence and thousands of army and police border patrols.

Along with other ex-communist countries in Eastern Europe, Hungary opposes a policy that would require all EU countries to take in some of the hundreds of thousands of people seeking asylum in the bloc.

"I think if turnout is around 40 percent, that is a fiasco for Viktor Orban and the government in international terms," said Attila Juhasz, an analyst at think tank Political Capital.

After casting his vote in a wealthy Budapest district early on Sunday, Orban told reporters that he would go to Brussels next week to start talks, empowered by the referendum result.

"And I shall try, with the help of the outcome, if this is an appropriate outcome, to ensure that we should not be forced to accept in Hungary people we don't want to live with."

He said what mattered was that votes rejecting the quotas should exceed the number of "Yes" votes.

Orban also said his government could modify the Hungarian constitution after the vote.

In a letter published in a daily newspaper on Saturday, Orban again urged Hungarians to send a message to the EU that its migration policies posed a threat to Europe's security.

"We can send the message that it is only up to us, European citizens, whether we can jointly force the Union to come to its senses or let it destroy itself," he wrote in the Magyar Idok.

HARDLINE APPROACH

While Budapest says immigration policy should be a matter of national sovereignty, human rights groups have criticised the government for stoking fears and xenophobia, and for mistreating refugees on the border. But Orban's hardline approach on migration has won allies in Central Europe.

Last year, hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East crossed Hungary on their way to richer countries in Western Europe. This year Hungary recorded around 18,000 illegal border crossings.

Erzsebet Virag, voting near Budapest's eastern railway station, where a year ago thousands of migrants camped outside waiting to get on trains towards Vienna, said:

"I voted (No) because there are a lot of poor people in our country too and if more poor people come in we will be even poorer and have to work even more."

(Reporting by Krisztina Than, additional reporting by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Catherine Evans)

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