Mass Protest in Hungary Exposes Divisions After Orban Win

(Bloomberg) -- Tens of thousands of Hungarians packed Budapest’s most iconic avenue to protest Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s re-election, saying it may further stifle democratic freedoms in the ex-Communist European Union member.

Protesters marched on Saturday from the Opera on Andrassy Avenue to the square in front of Parliament in the biggest anti-government protest in years. Organizers demanded a new ballot and an overhaul of the election system, saying current rules favored the incumbent. They urged new protests next weekend. Opposition parties have called for a probe into alleged irregularities in Sunday’s vote.

Orban won a crushing victory by pledging a fight against EU plans to allocate refugees across the bloc and a crackdown on civil society groups. Since 2010, Orban has centralized power by appointing allies to the helm of independent institutions, including the courts, and extending his influence over much of the media.

“It’s very important to show that lots of people didn’t vote for Orban and especially now when he wants to silence the last remaining voices that don’t agree with him,” said Tamara Toth, a 20-year-old university student at the protest.

Deep Divisions

The demonstration in Budapest exposed deep divisions in Hungarian society. Orban’s Fidesz party won 50 percent of the votes in the election but a fragmented opposition and the gerrymandering of electoral districts resulted in a two-thirds parliamentary supermajority for the ruling party. That means Orban can pass any law without opposition support.

Pro-government media labeled the protest as an attack by the “Soros empire,” in reference to George Soros, the Hungarian-born U.S. billionaire who funds non-governmental organizations promoting liberal democracy around the world. Orban, who’s converting Hungary into a self-styled “illiberal state” modeled on authoritarian regimes such as Russia and Turkey, made Soros the central target during the election campaign and derided the opposition as pawns of the investor-philanthropist.

Figyelo, a pro-government weekly owned by an Orban ally, printed a list of hundreds of names this week that it said were “the speculator’s people” in Hungary, including academics, journalists and NGO activists. The U.S. condemned the list as an attempt at intimidation.

The European Parliament is currently debating whether to recommend initiating a process that could lead to the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights in the trading bloc. The government in Budapest poses a “clear risk of a serious breach” to the EU’s democratic values, warranting the most serious penalty against an EU member state, Judith Sargentini, the European Parliament rapporteur, said in a draft report this week. The full 751-member chamber is scheduled to vote on the issue in September.

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