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May 09, 2018

Anti-Orban Protestors Rally in Budapest

Thousands of protestors gathered outside parliament buildings in Budapest, Hungary yesterday to denounce the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Orban won a third-term last month in an election characterized by government-sponsored attacks on Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros.

Although the opposition failed to unite effectively during the campaign to prevent a landslide, today’s protests were an eclectic show of defiance against Orban’s stated aim of an “illiberal democracy.” The all-day demonstrations focused on a range of issues, from academic freedom to attacks on migrants to the “Stop Soros” package of laws aimed at damaging civil society.

University student Gherdan Teodora attended the protest instead of studying for her three exams. “Me failing isn’t as important as Orban’s failing,” said the 21- year-old from Budapest. 

Fidesz, Orban’s ruling party, now has 133 of 199 parliamentary seats, controls virtually of the country’s media, and looks set to press a hard right agenda that worries much of the European Union. Many centrists in the EU fear Orban’s far-right nationalism, his increasingly close alliance with Russia President Vladimir Putin, and his suffocation of internal dissent.

The “Stop Soros” bill would require NGOs working on migration-related issues to register with the interior ministry and subject them to a 25 percent tax on all foreign donations. NGOs trying to resister could be rejected on “national security” grounds.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a NGO known across the world for the integrity of its work on migrants and other issues, warns that “During its eight years in power, the government had already made it very clear that it values its own interests above the rule of law and democratic values, human rights and the constitution…During the election campaign they made it clear that they consider independent civil organizations and human rights defenders as enemies, and will do their utmost to marginalize, smear and eliminate them.”

Last month pro-government magazine Figyelo published a list of more than two hundred names of those it claimed likely to be “mercenaries” paid by Soros to topple the government. The U.S. embassy in Budapest joined other foreign governments to publicly express support for those listed. It tweeted: “Civil society = ordinary citizens working to make their country a better place. The United States condemns Figyelo's attempt to intimidate these citizens."

But Orban found overwhelming popularity through a virulently nationalistic and anti-immigration and anti-EU campaign, becoming Hungary’s longest-serving premier.

The rally today was dotted with EU flags, now symbols of defiance against Orban’s ultranationalism. Discussions over a new EU-wide budget offer potential to curb some of Orban’s excesses, but the Hungarian prime minster has threatened to block the agreement, which must have the approval of all EU member states. “We don’t think that even a single cent should be given to migrants,” he said.

Today’s mass protests, the third since Orban’s election victory, were cut short in a fierce storm of severe hail, but the fight for civil society, academic freedom, and liberal values is only starting.