The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Viktor Orban, after soaring to reelection win in Hungary, to target George Soros and NGOs

Hungary's right-wing, anti-migrant prime minister, Viktor Orban, was reelected on April 8 after his Fidesz party took two-thirds of the seats in parliament. (Video: Reuters)

BUDAPEST — Almost immediately, the fear and anxiety were palpable.

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s strongman, right-wing prime minister, soared to reelection victory on Sunday with a powerful supermajority in parliament — precisely the margin he needed to continue an overhaul of the country’s democratic constitution and system of checks and balances.

On Monday morning, hours after the election results were announced, Orban’s representatives announced one of the first orders of business: What they are calling the “Stop Soros” bill is designed to crack down on liberal nongovernmental organizations, think tanks and other institutions that, in the eyes of the government, have worked against their agenda and on behalf of the migrants Orban seeks to keep out.

“Soros” refers to George Soros, the Hungarian American and Jewish financier, government-accountability advocate and pro-migrant philanthropist, whom Orban has cast as an evil puppet master, pulling strings that spell Hungary’s demise.

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“Don’t have any doubts,” Janos Halasz, a spokesman for Orban’s Fidesz party, said of the legislation on Hungarian state television Monday morning. “This is a question of sovereignty and national security. This has to be dealt with immediately.”

For activists and members of the opposition — some of whom fought back tears as they watched the results on Sunday night — Orban’s intentions are not a surprise. During his campaign, he warned that Soros’s allies in Hungary would face revenge after the election — “moral, political and legal revenge.” His party has been talking about the “Stop Soros” bill since February.

But the crackdown on liberal actors in civil society appears to be coming sooner than they might have imagined. It will top the agenda when the new parliament begins its work next month, Fidesz officials said Monday.

“That means some NGOs will be demolished in a couple of months,” said Marton Gulyas, a political activist and head of Common Country, the largest promoter of opposition party coordination before the election. “They have to be to prepared for government threats, raids and I don’t know what else.”

“We can see an alarmingly fast crackdown on civil society, or independent voices, in Hungary,” said Marta Pardavi, the co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights watchdog group that works extensively with migrants and refugees.

Orban’s government has been working to curtail the work of nongovernmental organizations for some time now, Pardavi said. The effort included a June 2017 law seeking to register — and stigmatize — organizations with foreign funding.

“We’ve seen a shying away of public partners, state partners and institutions that previously worked together with us — certain projects were halted,” said Stefania Kapronczay, director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. She noted some of those partnerships had lasted for nearly 20 years.

“But this proposal — which we call starve and stop — is taking that to a different level,” Pardavi said of Orban’s “Stop Soros” initiative.

According to the version of the bill submitted to parliament before the election, it would impose a 25 percent tax on foreign donations to nonprofits that work with migrants and allow the interior minister to forbid any activity he identified as a “national security risk.”

The law and the campaign behind it, Pardavi said, not only seek to create an environment in which groups like hers cannot afford to function but also enter new territory by targeting specific individuals.

In recent months, she said, government ministers who support the bill have named her organization and her employees as a threat to the national interest. “Saying that individuals in Hungary are a national security threat is, I think, a method that clearly has no place in a democracy,” she said.

On Friday, two days before Hungarians went to the polls, Orban suggested the government had amassed a list of names of domestic enemies it would soon be tracking down.

“Approximately 2,000 people are working in Hungary to overthrow the government in the election campaign and replace it with a pro-immigration cabinet favorable to George Soros, as well,” he said, speaking to state-run Kossuth Radio.

“We know exactly, by name, who these people are and how they operate in order to turn Hungary into an immigrant country.”

The 2,000 figure may be a distortion of a comment by Tracie Ahern, a former chief financial officer of Soros Fund Management. In late March, Magyar Idok, a pro-government newspaper, reported it had a recording of Ahern saying Soros’s Open Society Foundations had 2,000 people working on his behalf.

But Ahern’s comment was taken out of context, as part of what some called a sting operation designed to boost the government’s electoral appeal. About 2,000 people work for Soros’s foundations around the word, but only 174 of these employees work in the Budapest office, said Csaba Csontos, a spokesman for Open Society Foundations.

“It’s a double threat,” Csontos said. “First, it’s scary that government uses information that was gathered using intelligence technologies like this. It’s threatening because the prime minister is using rhetoric that was last used in Europe by Milosevic.” Slobodan Milsoevic was the former Serbian president tried for facilitating genocide during the Bosnian War.

“It’s not just that we are his enemies,” Csontos said of Orban. “It’s that we somehow became ‘mercenaries,’ in the rhetoric. It basically suggests to people that there are enemies like enemies in a war, and that the enemies must be eliminated.”

Gergo Saling in Budapest contributed to this report.