May 21, 2017 / 5:40 PM / 5 months ago

Hungarians protest again over clampdown on university, NGOs

Protesters attend a rally against Hungarian government's clampdown on a top foreign university and non-government organisations in Budapest, Hungary, May 21, 2017. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters marched to Hungary’s parliament on Sunday in the latest mass rally against Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s clampdown on a top foreign university and non-government organizations ahead of a parliamentary election due next year.

The string of major street demonstrations in Budapest since early April has been triggered by a new law that would drive out of Hungary a top university founded by U.S. financier George Soros.

The European Commission started legal action against Hungary over the new higher education law, while the European Parliament condemned Budapest for what it called a “serious deterioration” in the rule of law and fundamental rights.

Budapest says those moves are part of a “vendetta” against Orban, one of the toughest opponents of migration to Europe who has called for transforming Hungary into an “illiberal state,” citing Russia and Turkey as models of success.

Less than a year before a parliamentary election in April, 53-year-old Orban has launched a crusade against Hungarian-born Soros, whose liberal and internationalist world view is at odds with that of the nationalist-minded Hungarian leader.

Orban has rejected accusations Budapest was threatening the Central European University (CEU) and dismissed Soros, whose Open Society Foundations has been active in Hungary for three decades, as a “financial speculator”.

“It is the government’s arrogant tone that upsets me the most,” said Sandor Zsuga, a 30-year-old IT engineer, one of dozens of demonstrators carrying a European Union flag.

“I think the identity of George Soros is irrelevant. It does not matter what he is doing. They only needed to create a villain. Now they pulled him out of the hat because he supports civil organizations,” he said.

In the past seven years, Orban has eliminated checks on his power by taking control of the public media, curbing the powers of the constitutional court, and placing loyalists in top positions at public institutions.

Under another bill, non-governmental organizations with foreign donations of at least 7.2 million forints ($26,172) will be required to register with authorities and declare themselves as foreign-funded. The NGOs have said the bill stigmatized them.

A survey by pollster Median put support for Orban’s ruling Fidesz at 31 percent of the electorate in April, down from 37 percent in January. Nationalist Jobbik was backed by 14 percent of voters, while the Socialists came third with 9 percent.

The Fidesz party said in a statement that Sunday’s protest was another attempt by the “Soros-network” to put pressure on Hungary over its migration policy.

($1 = 275.1 forints)

Reporting by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Clelia Oziel

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