Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched through Hungary’s capital of Budapest on Saturday to protest Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government, as critics warn the country could slide further into illiberalism.
Orbán’s radical right, nationalist Fidesz party won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections last Sunday. With a two-thirds majority in the legislature, Fidesz now has the power to make changes to the country’s constitution.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized the election for “intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric, media bias and opaque campaign financing.”
The campaign saw Orbán rail against migration and push the idea that unseen “foreign interests” were seeking to undermine the government. The prime minister also made Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros a focal point of the campaign, claiming that Soros was conspiring to bring hundreds of thousands of migrants into the country and putting up anti-Soros posters around the country.
Opponents fear that Fidesz’s parliamentary majority will allow Orbán to accelerate his attacks on democratic institutions and civil society, including pushing through so-called “Stop Soros” laws that would put harsh restrictions on non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International.
In the week since the election, a pro-government magazine owned by one of Orbán’s allies has published a list of 200 people it accused of being agents for Soros. The roster included journalists, human rights workers and university professors.
A major opposition newspaper and an English language independent news site both announced they were shutting down just days after the vote. Orbán and his allies control most of the country’s media, and the closings only add to the prime minister’s grip on how Hungarians receive their information.
As the election results came in last Sunday night, there were no major protests but instead acknowledgments of defeat and resignations from opposition parties. Only a small crowd of young people gathered in front of Parliament to demonstrate against Orbán, before moving on to hold a sit-in at a major Budapest intersection under the lights of police cars. The effort petered out as the night dragged on.
But less than a week later, Hungarians came out in droves Saturday to voice their opposition to the government. Crowds of protesters moved through the streets of Budapest, holding anti-Orbán signs and waving Hungarian flags. The demonstration was one of the largest in Hungary in recent years.
Europe is watching developments in Hungary closely, as Orbán’s open defiance of European Union policies and increasing consolidation of power present a model that other far-right nationalist politicians and governments may seek to emulate.