Fidesz landslide heightens concerns for civil society and independent media

Hungary’s right-wing Fidesz Party won a landslide victory for the third time in a row in parliamentary elections held on 8th April. Fidesz regained a two-thirds super-majority in the Hungarian parliament, giving the Party enough votes to make constitutional changes. Fidesz’s campaign focused on generating fear among the public, including by alleging that there was a threat to Hungarian society from a flood of migration. Fidesz also perpetuated conspiracy theories about Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros' activities in the country. 

After the election, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán promised to seek “moral, political and legal amends” against his enemies, namely opposition parties, civil society organisations and the independent media.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found that the electoral campaign was “characterised by a pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources, undermining contestants’ ability to compete on an equal basis".

Association

Civil society has come under severe attack throughout Orban's tenure. In May, 77 university professors from 28 countries signed a statement of solidarity with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee as the government continued its attacks against Hungarian NGOs and the the Stop Soros Bill was being considered.

Civil society organisations believe that the bill, if accepted even in its current form, would have a devastating impact on both NGOs and the people they serve. There are, however, signs that it will be adopted in a “tightened”, but as yet unknown, form, according to comments by cabinet chief Antal Rogán to the the parliamentary justice committee.

Due to the increasingly repressive political and legal environment, as well as security concerns, Open Society Foundations (OSF), a grant-making body funded by George Soros, is closing its operations in Hungary and moving staff to Berlin in August 2018. The OSF played a role in the fall of communism and has distributed approximately $400 million in support of democratic initiatives in the country since 1984.

In a positive development, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) won yet another lawsuit against the Hungarian government. According to a press release from the NGO:

“in October 2017 the HHC sued the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister because it had published misleading statements about the organization in a ‘National Consultation’ questionnaire distributed to all households in Hungary. The HHC claimed that in Question 5 of the questionnaire the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister had violated the organization's right to good reputation”. 

The Metropolitan Regional Court of Budapest ruled that the Hungarian government must publish an apology to the HHC on the home page of its website (kormany.hu) for 30 days and pay compensation of two million HUF (US$7,400).


Peaceful Assembly

A number of rallies were held by the opposition against Fidesz’s election victory and most took place without interference. However, as Attila Mráz, Director of the Political Freedoms Project of Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), told the CIVICUS Monitor:

“the police banned a demonstration which aimed to form a human chain around Parliament during the night before its convening session. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union successfully represented the organizers of the event in court: once the police prohibition was declared unlawful and was nullified by the court, the protest finally took place”.

Mráz added that “both the Parliamentary Guard and the Counterterrorism Centre widely advertised that they would implement high level security measures around Parliament building before and during its convention. Although courts affirm that freedom of assembly should be guaranteed even in areas affected by such heightened security measures, the unprecedented securitization of the convening session very likely had a chilling effect on those considering to protest”.

Expression

In Hungary, oligarchs linked to the government control many of the newspapers, radio and TV stations. The final edition of Magyar Nemzet, one of the few critical dailies left, was published three days after the elections. The owner, a former friend and now enemy of Orbán, decided to close the newspaper. After Fidesz's landslide victory, it is feared the government will destroy all remaining independent media outlets.