Despite winning a fourth term last week, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is upping his campaign against NGOs and Jewish billionaire George Soros, with pro-government media outlets outing opposition activists and a ‘Stop Soros’ law in the works.
Orbán’s right-wing Fidesz party secured a third straight election victory on April 8 with nearly 49 percent of the vote. However, the country’s electoral system means Orbán has two-thirds of all parliamentary seats and another supermajority.
Some 100,000 people attended a protest in Budapest on Saturday, the BBC reported. Many of the demonstrators were wearing Hungarian and European Union flags, it noted, as they protested what they see as an unfair electoral system, and the corruption and abuse of power they say characterizes Orbán's rule.
Last week, Hungarian business magazine Figyelo (Observer) – now run by a staunch Orbán ally – published a list of more than 200 people it claims are part of a Soros-funded plot to take down the new government.
The list includes representatives of international nongovernmental organizations, local journalists and academics at Central European University, the educational institution founded by Soros that has been threatened with closure from Orbán’s government.
“The speculator’s people,” the headline read, alongside a picture of the Hungarian-born Soros.
Along with a “Stop Soros” law the new parliament is planning to pass as early as next month – which would allow the government to ban organizations that support immigration and pose a “national security risk” – Orbán and fellow right-wingers’ post-election rhetoric has many in Hungary worried about what happens next.
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“It’s very, very alarming,” said Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and herself named on Figyelo’s list.
She notes that many of the names on the list who are associated with her and other organizations are individuals who have only worked behind the scenes, without a public role – or, in some cases, have barely done any work with the organizations at all.
“This goes beyond what’s been done before,” she warned.
Still, Pardavi and representatives from other NGOs in Hungary say the list didn’t come as a surprise.
“We weren’t shocked. We were just sad,” said Áron Demeter from Amnesty International Hungary, an organization also named on Figyelo’s list.
Demeter said the list was just the latest in a long line of Orbán-driven attacks on civil society.
Those attacks invariably invoke Soros and often use coded anti-Semitic language to attack the Jewish financier and the so-called “Soros mercenaries” working for nongovernmental organizations.
The list in Figyelo made use of the Magyar term “spekuláns” – speculator – a common term used to attack Soros in pro-government Hungarian media outlets in recent years.
“It’s a term that can be read as anti-Semitic by those who are familiar with it,” explained Demeter.
“The government doesn’t say Soros is Jewish,” he added, “but there’s an implication for those who are familiar with this kind of language. For them, it rings a bell.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among those to congratulate Orbán on his recent election victory, and he’s another leader who has targeted Soros for being a source of his country’s problems, specifically in relation to asylum seekers. Left-wing activists have also been “outed” in Israel in recent years, most notably in an ad campaign by the right-wing group Im Tirtzu in 2016.
In Hungary, the attacks on civil society and Soros aren’t about to stop with Fidesz’s victory at the polls, activists warned.
Zselyke Csaky, a senior researcher at Freedom House, said the system Orbán has set up relies on confrontation, and that the premier has given himself no option but to escalate his attacks on his perceived enemies.
“The internal logic of this system is built on constant campaigning, a kind of siege mentality,” said Csaky. “It doesn’t allow for correction.”
It has led some in Hungary to fear that Orbán is getting closer and closer to building an autocratic state.
Adam Schönberger, director of a Jewish youth association in Budapest, told Haaretz that he and others have heard rumors about what the proposed ‘Stop Soros’ law could involve. Foreign workers of international NGOs could be banned under the proposed law, he said, and it could even prevent Hungarian NGO workers from freely leaving and entering the country.
Whether these rumors become reality or not under the proposed law, Schönberger claimed that Orbán wants to discredit NGOs and the causes they represent in Hungary, especially those related to immigration. It’s all a means, added Schönberger, of further solidifying Orbán’s power and building what he worries will become an “autocratic regime.”
The next few months are decisive for Orbán and the EU itself, said Csaky.
“Orbán will have to decide whether to actually implement legislation that sharply deviates from European and international norms,” he said.
“If he goes forward with them, his so-far mostly rhetorical campaign against NGOs will turn into a real crackdown,” Csaky said, “and that will be a watershed for Hungary.”
Some Hungarians and European politicians are calling on the European People’s Party (EPP) – the EU’s center-right political alliance that has been accused of protecting and enabling Fidesz – to take a firmer stand against its fellow member. “It’s time for them to express their concerns publicly,” said Pardavi.
“In a few weeks, there’ll be legislation targeting legitimate organizations doing legitimate work – a huge crackdown on freedom of association in an EU country,” she added.
Pardavi and other activists are working hard to communicate their concerns to people outside of Hungary – especially in the EU bubble in Brussels – and to explain what’s going on in Hungary in a way people will understand.
“The further away one sits from Hungary,” said Pardavi, “the more incredible, the more unbelievable it looks.”