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BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Prime Minister Viktor Orban urged Hungarians to reject European Union migrant quotas in a referendum on Sunday, evoking the fear of a militant attack to rally people to the polls in a vote that looks uncertain to reach the required turnout.
Orban has been at the forefront of opposition in Europe to the position taken by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has said Europe had an obligation to take in refugees.
Since last September, when hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East crossed Hungary on their way to richer countries in Western Europe, Orban has sealed the southern border with Serbia and Croatia to migrants with a razor wire fence and around 8,000 army and police.
While opinion polls show support for a rejection of the quotas topping 80 percent among those who say they will vote, they forecast turnout will not top the 50 percent required by the constitution for a referendum to be valid.
Turnout in referendums has historically been lower in referendums than parliamentary elections in the country, and votes on EU and NATO membership also fell short of the 50-percent mark.
Orban said an overwhelming rejection would empower the government to defend the country and fight in Brussels for a change in migration policy, adding he was ready to start negotiations as soon as next week.
"If there are more 'no' votes than 'yes' votes, that means Hungarians do not accept the rule which the bureaucrats of the European Commission want to forcefully impose on us," Orban told TV2 late on Thursday.
"The more migrants there are, the greater the risk of terror," he said. "We would like to preserve Hungary a safe country like it is now."
In the past two months, the government placed billboards nationwide that link migration to violent attacks. They also threaten the nation with millions more migrants.
"Did you know? Since the start of the migration crisis, the number of harassment cases against women has jumped in Europe", some billboards say.
Many people in the street echo the campaign slogans.
"They (migrants) don't know how to behave, they steal, they rape women, they carry weapons, they organise and do terrorist things," Iren Botos, a retired chemistry teacher, said in Budapest.
EU officials have privately expressed alarm about the campaign, which they see as stoking tensions.
"This is a domestic Orban exercise. If it emboldens him further, that is no good news for the EU," one diplomat said.
Analysts and rights groups say the referendum could strengthen Orban's position and allow him to keep the issue of migration on the agenda ahead of national elections in 2018. It has already cemented support for his Fidesz party.
"The publicly financed anti-refugee propaganda has blatantly demonised migrants, suggesting that migration is responsible for terrorism, that migration – as such – endangers Hungarian culture," the human rights group Helsinki Committee said.
The only visible campaign against the referendum comes from a small spoof called the Two-Tailed Dog Party. Their posters are mocking the government's anti-immigrant rhetoric but are unlikely to have substantial impact.
Relocation of migrants in the EU has failed to start on a large scale a year after it was agreed and the eastern member states have shown little sign of bowing to political pressure to take in refugees.
Additional reporting by Gabriella Baczynska in Brussels and Krisztina Fenyo in Budapest; Editing by Alison Williams