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Hungary’s Government Submits ‘sovereignty’ Bill Seen Aimed at Opposition, NGO Funding

The bill on ‘protecting national sovereignty’ is regarded by opponents of Orban’s Fidesz party as another illiberal move to silence criticism and weaken the opposition ahead of the 2024 European elections.

Hungary’s ruling party on Tuesday submitted a draft act that the government claims will rid the country’s politics of foreign money, but opposition parties agree is designed to neuter criticism ahead of the elections for the European Parliament in June 2024 and build on Fidesz’s campaign centred on “national sovereignty”.

Tabled by Fidesz parliamentary leader Mate Kocsis, the bill on “protecting national sovereignty” calls on lawmakers to amend the constitution to include a passage on sovereignty.

“Hungary’s sovereignty is impaired – and it also carries a heightened risk to national security – if political power gets into the hands of persons or organisations dependent on any foreign power, organisation or person,” the bill reads.

As expected, the act would make accepting foreign funding while standing for election punishable by up to three years in prison. It would also create a new agency to monitor and investigate foreign interference in politics, including NGOs or other organisations whose “activities using foreign funding may influence the outcome of elections” or which “engage in or support activities to influence the will of voters using foreign funding”. The Sovereignty Protection Office will be set up by February 2024, but will not have any sanctioning power other than publishing an annual “sovereignty report” and passing on any information to the authorities.

Unexpectedly, however, the bill goes even further than many had feared by looking to ban the funding of political parties or candidates by Hungarian legal entities or associations and forbids anonymous grants to parties, which would deal a potentially lethal blow for opposition parties already suffering from financial problems.

The move by the party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban is reminiscent of a series of amendments to laws introduced by the Kremlin from 2006 onwards that organisations engaging in political activity and receiving foreign funding had to register as “foreign agents”, which had the effect of killing all opposition to Vladimir Putin’s rule.

Likewise, the freshly elected populist Robert Fico in Slovakia is looking to have all NGOs operating in the country that are funded from abroad labelled as foreign agents, while the parliament in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity in October began public consultations on adopting a law to restrict the work of NGOs and potentially label them as foreign agents.

“[US billionaire] George Soros no longer conceals his plans; we know the Soros plan, he has destroyed the British pound, he is flooding Europe with migrants, he openly declares that national borders must be abolished, that is, European countries must be deprived of their sovereignty,” Orban said at last week’s Sovereignty Conference organised by the government-funded NGO the Center for Fundamental Rights.

The law would not have a direct affect on the media, but the Sovereignty Protection Office will monitor “attempts at disinformation”. Here, Fidesz lawmakers draw parallels with the European Parliament’s INGE (the Special Committee on Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the European Union, including Disinformation), which targets mostly Russian propaganda, something the Hungarian government and state media regularly spread.

Fidesz parliamentary group leader Kocsis said earlier that the law was based on lessons learned during the 2022 general election campaign. In an intense media campaign waged against the opposition immediately after last year’s vote, which Fidesz nevertheless won by a landslide, the government accused opposition parties of receiving illegal party funding from the US.

The opposition’s prime ministerial candidate Peter Marki-Zay admitted to his Everybody’s Hungary movement having received around 2 billion forints (about 5.3 million euros) in foreign funding, mostly from the US-based NGO Action for Democracy. Marki-Zay used a loophole whereby Hungary’s party financing laws only prohibit political parties from accepting foreign money, not civil movements.

Kocsis wrote on Facebook that the proposed bill would “close a loophole” of “electoral trickery”.

Critics point out this is just one of several attempts by the Orban government over the years to curb and silence the opposition and civil society groups that are critical of the government. Yet despite enjoying a two-thirds majority in parliament that allows Fidesz to change any legislation, many of these attempts were shipwrecked on the rocks of the European courts, which could also be the fate of this act.

In 2017, parliament passed a law requiring NGOs that receive more than 22,000 euros a year in foreign funding to register as “organisations receiving foreign funding”, which caused an international uproar. It was also ruled discriminatory by the Court of Justice of the European Union, forcing the Hungarian parliament to repeal it in 2021.

A subsequent new law introduced in 2022 also raised concerns, as it targeted all civil society organisations with an annual budget of more than 55,000 euros and called on the State Audit Office to carry out regular audits, while exempting sports or religious organisations, which receive by far the most public funding.

Source : Balkan Insight