Hungarian NGOs fear crackdown as Orban prepares for new term

Anti-immigration leader pledges to protect ‘security and Christian culture’

 People attend a protest against the government of prime minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, Hungary, last month. Photograph:  Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

People attend a protest against the government of prime minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, Hungary, last month. Photograph: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

 

Civil society groups in Hungary are braced for a new crackdown from anti-immigration prime minister Viktor Orban, who on Monday vowed to use his third consecutive term to defend the country’s “security and Christian culture”.

Parliament in Budapest will reconvene on Tuesday following Mr Orban’s landslide re-election last month, when his nationalist Fidesz party took 49 per cent of votes, which translates to two-thirds of all seats under a system that it devised.

That “supermajority” allows Mr Orban (54) to pass any legislation and change the constitution, and he is expected to use it to tighten state control over NGOs that work with migrants, and potentially others he accuses of “meddling” in politics.

Fidesz says that an early item on parliament’s agenda will be a “Stop Soros” Bill named after billionaire Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros, whose support for liberal NGOs is anathema to Mr Orban’s vision of Hungary as an “illiberal democracy”.

Mr Orban based his election campaign on claims that Mr Soros (87) and groups that he funds are conspiring with the EU and United Nations to bring millions of migrants from the Middle East and Africa to Europe, according to a secret plan that he says would destroy European security, culture and identity; critics accuse the Hungarian leader of scaremongering and spreading conspiracy theories.

Security clearance

The “Stop Soros” Bill would force NGOs that work with migrants in Hungary to apply for security clearance, and then pay a 25 percent tax on all their foreign funding. During a vetting process that could take many months, groups would have to suspend all refugee- and migrant-related activity, including advocacy work.

“Effectively a gag order would be placed on us and other organisations involved in [these] projects,” said Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.

“It’s basically a stop sign on all these activities, which would preclude all work on refugee assistance. It’s an existential threat to our operations.”

Stefania Kapronczay, executive director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, predicted “a continued crackdown on NGOs, especially those organisations that voice their opinion on public affairs”.

“We also heard a couple of [government] voices saying that those organisations that ‘meddle’ in politics should be banned,” she told The Irish Times.

“We believe the law is very dangerous because essentially it outlaws the type of activity that NGOs carry out – legal, lobbying, public advocacy, providing representation. Now it applies to organisations that ‘support’ migration but it could be broadened to those that oppose corruption or protect Roma rights, for example.”

Suing Hungary

The EU is already suing Hungary over its existing controls on NGOs and education reform that could force the Soros-funded Central European University to leave Budapest, but Mr Orban says his mandate gives his policies full legitimacy.

“We shall protect Hungarian culture and Christian culture, we shall not hand the country over to outsiders, and Hungary shall remain a Hungarian country,” he told national radio on Friday.

“A shadow army of George Soros is operating in Hungary. We want them to come into the light and to be visible. We want to know who they are, we want to understand what they want, and we want them to reveal the source and the amount of funding they receive, and whether they need to do anything in return for it.”

Mr Orban dismissed proposals from top EU officials to cut future funding to member states that undermine democracy and the rule of law, saying that “we are the democrats, and they are bureaucrats”.

“Hungarians don’t need to worry – there will be no budget until the Hungarians give the go-ahead,” he added.