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Hungary’s pro-migrant groups seen as targets after election

April 10, 2018

Hungarian Prime Minister and Chairman of Fidesz Party Viktor Orban, center, and Deputy Prime Minister and Chairman of the Christian Democratic Party Zsolt Semjen, left, sing as they celebrate the win of Fidesz and the Christian Democrats at the election night watch event after the general elections in Budapest, Hungary, late Sunday, April 8, 2018. Prime Minister Orban said his "decisive" re-election victory and the super majority in parliament his right-wing populist party appeared to have won Sunday were "an opportunity to defend Hungary." (Szilard Koszticsak/MTI via AP)

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — A day after it won an overwhelming election victory on an anti-migration platform, the right-wing populist party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said it would limit the ability of civic groups to help migrants and refugees.

Election officials Monday were still counting mailed ballots, which added another seat to the Fidesz party’s super-majority and gave it control over 134 of 199 seats in parliament.

That would allow Fidesz and its small ally, the Christian Democrats, to push through the so-called “Stop Soros” bills, said Janos Halasz, the party’s parliamentary spokesman.

Orban alleges that the opposition — collaborating with the United Nations, the European Union and wealthy philanthropist George Soros — wants to turn Hungary into an “immigrant country,” flooding it with mostly Muslim migrants and threatening its security and Christian identity.

Approval of the draft law targeting the advocates for refugees could come as soon as May, the party said.

The new laws could make it hard for groups working with asylum-seekers to continue their activities in Hungary. The laws would force the NGOs working with migrants and asylum seekers to get government permits; income received from abroad would be taxed; advocacy groups could be banned from going closer than 8 kilometers (5 miles) from Hungary’s borders, where asylum-seekers file claims; and foreigners without authorization to help refugees could be banned from Hungary.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which provides legal help to asylum-seekers, said it would not let the election results derail its mission.

The committee receives support from Soros’s Open Society Foundations and is frequently identified by the government as one of the “foreign agents” supposedly working against Hungary’s national interests.

“Our association will continue its activities for as long as people in dire straits ask us for help,” the group said. “We are the same age as Hungarian democracy, established in 1989, of which there is less and less left.”

The Helsinki Committee said it was clear that Fidesz “considers its power interests more important than the values of the state of law and democracy, human rights and the Constitution.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated Orban, pledging that her country will be a “reliable partner” for Budapest, despite differences, her spokesman said.

Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert wouldn’t comment Monday on the tone of Orban’s campaign. He acknowledged differences on issues such as migration, but said Merkel and her government are offering “to advance cooperation further, bilaterally as well as in the framework of our common EU membership and the values that unite us in Europe.”

Before the election, Orban’s government had warned that Hungary would descend into chaos should it become an “immigrant country” like France or Belgium, with funds meant for Hungarian families or the country’s underprivileged Roma minority diverted to migrants. The government said the presence of the migrants would weaken Hungary’s security and increase its risk of terrorism.

He also warned that the migrants would halt Hungary’s economic development, would weaken government support for rural areas, would threaten the safety of women and girls, and would turn the capital of Budapest into an “unrecognizable” city.

“If the dam bursts, if the borders are opened, if immigrants set foot in Hungary, there will be no going back,” Orban had said Friday at a final campaign rally.

Experts said the landslide victory could lead to government campaigns against other civic groups, independent media, the Soros-founded Central European University in Budapest and parts of the judiciary that upset Orban with some of its rulings.

“Fidesz power is based on control of political life and independent institutions,” said analyst Bulcsu Hunyadi of the Political Capital Institute. “It serves the single goal of making Fidesz the only political actor which can dominate public discourse in Hungary.”

Orban’s clampdown on nongovernmental organizations also is based on his belief that only elected officials have the right to be involved in politics. Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs made that very clear during the wait for Sunday’s election results.

“The loopholes still present in the legal system, which allow unauthorized organizations to rummage around, so to speak, in the doings of political life, in political decision-making, need to be closed,” Kovacs told the news website Index.hu.

Since returning to power in 2010, Orban has stabilized the economy in the wake of two scandal-filled terms led by the Socialist Party. But he also deliberately weakened the system of democratic checks and balances, nurturing widespread cronyism, severely limiting media pluralism and putting ample state resources at the disposal of his government.

Election observers noted as much in a report on the voting.

“Excessive” government spending on ads that closely echoed Orban’s re-election campaign was unfair to the other parties in the race and “significantly compromised” a fair contest, said Douglas Wake, head of a mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The overlapping campaigns, which demonized migrants, “blurred the line between state and party,” he said.

The “hostile and intimidating campaign rhetoric limited the space for substantive debate and diminished voters’ ability to make an informed choice,” Wake said.

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, which runs a voting rights program to train citizens to be active in the interest of clean elections, said it envisioned becoming a target of government “legislative and communications attacks.”

“I don’t expect that this will be an easy two years to come, and I believe that the government will do everything in their power to minimize our impact,” said HCLU executive director Stefania Kapronczay. “However, human rights is an ideal, and it cannot be shut down.”

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This story has been amended to correct that the new laws would force the NGOs working with migrants and asylum seekers to get government permits.

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