If Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán thought he could quietly muzzle Hungary’s civil society and academic freedom without national and international backlash, he was very wrong. Today’s major street protests in Budapest were the latest in a series of massive demonstrations against Orbán’s latest moves against NGOs and the Central European University (CEU).
Yesterday saw large anti-corruption protests in his home village of Felcsut, and this evening thousands of people marched in the country’s capital to demonstrate against the government and in solidarity with CEU and NGOs. The dissent seems to be gathering series momentum very quickly. One of today’s protestors, Balint Pinczes, explained: “When your values are under attack, when liberty and democracy are under attack, you’ve got to get out there. And of course, we’re here for the sheer fun of it as well.”
Orbán’s ruling Fidesz Party predictably dismissed the protests as the work of a “network” of George Soros, the Hungarian-American philanthropist, founder of the CEU and a supporter Hungarian NGOs. But the scapegoating of Soros is wearing thin as public anger grows.
The Budapest rally follows weeks of international condemnation. Last week, two United Nations Special Rapporteurs condemned legislation backed by the Hungarian government to restrict the activities of NGOs. The draft “Bill on the Transparency of Organisations Financed from Abroad” would have a “chilling effect” on legitimate scrutiny of the government, said the UN experts, and called on the government to withdraw the legislation.
“Certain public remarks by Prime Minister Orbán and other high-ranking government officials on the activities of civil society raise serious concerns about the government’s commitment to basic freedoms in a democratic society,” said the UN experts. “We urge the government to withdraw the bill and to provide a safe and enabling environment for civil society organizations both in practice and rhetoric, in line with their international human rights obligations.”
Last week Members of the European Parliament censured Orbán’s government, easily passing a resolution (by 393 votes to 221 with 64 abstentions) that condemned a “serious deterioration of the rule of law, democracy, and fundamental rights.” It cited the attempted closure of the CEU and called for a process that could ultimately lead to EU sanctions against Budapest. “The situation in Hungary justifies the triggering of the procedure which may result in sanctions for Hungary,” MEPs said in the resolution, and called for the controversial laws to be suspended or withdrawn.
The resolution listed a catalogue of MEP concerns, including “freedom of expression, academic freedom, the human rights of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, freedom of assembly and association, restrictions and obstructions to the activities of civil society organizations, the right to equal treatment, the rights of people belonging to minorities, including Roma, Jews and LGBTI people, social rights, the functioning of the constitutional system, the independence of the judiciary and of other institutions and many worrying allegations of corruption and conflicts of interest, which, taken together, could represent an emerging systemic threat to the rule of law in this Member State.”
Today’s protests come a week before the deadline for responses to the government’s biased “Let’s Stop Brussels!” national survey questions.
The national consultation features anti-immigration questions, and question 4 asks:
“More and more foreign-supported organizations operate in Hungary with the aim of interfering in the internal affairs of our country in an opaque manner. These organizations could jeopardize our independence. What do you think Hungary should do? (a) Require them to register, revealing the objectives of their activities and the sources of their finances. (b) Allow them to continue their risky activities without any supervision.”
The consultation suggests the government is confident of public support. But it looks like the famously astute Orbán may be overreaching. The internal and international response to his latest moves is mounting. Budapest is seeing its largest anti-government protests in years; the EU and the UN are openly questioning Orbán’s direction and judgment. With Hungarian general elections less than a year away, it looks like Orbán might be finally losing his political touch.