Hungarian rights activists say the government is escalating its assault on civil society as it prepares for municipal and European Parliamentary (EP) elections scheduled for June 9. And they’re appealing to the U.S. Congress for help.

Human rights defenders across Hungary describe an increasingly hostile and threatening environment. As outlined in my new report for Human Rights First, the activists told me in meetings last month that they are bracing for a fresh wave of propaganda against what is left of civil society after years of increasing repression in the form of government disinformation and smear campaigns. And they said such attacks typically increase during election season.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party is expected to dominate the municipal and European Parliament elections in June, maintaining its political hold on the country that it has consolidated over its nearly decade and a half in power. Fidesz controls two-thirds of the seats in Hungary’s parliament, giving it a supermajority that essentially allows it to govern unchallenged. Orbán’s party tends to overpower opposition parties in municipal elections, though there are exceptions, such as in Budapest which has a more liberal-leaning constituency.

At the same time, polls predict that far-right parties across Europe will enjoy record-breaking success in elections for the 720-member European Parliament elected from EU member States. The balloting for the first time will not include the U.K. since its June 2020 “Brexit” took effect after the last such elections in June 2019.

The potential for a “sharp right turn” in the European Parliament will have significant consequences for European policies, including further crackdowns on immigration, opposition to proposals to tackle climate change, and obstruction of support for Ukraine. The shift also threatens to make conditions increasingly difficult for civil society, as far-right leaders like Orbán embrace illiberal policies and oppose key values of liberal democracy, such as an independent judiciary and media, minority rights, and space for dissent.

Ally of Putin and Trump 

In Hungary, since first being elected to office in 2010, Orbán and his ruling party have rolled back democratic safeguards and pushed the country towards autocracy. The Hungarian leader is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s greatest ally in the EU, and publicly supports a Donald Trump election victory in the United States in 2024. Orbán has sought a far-right alliance with the MAGA side of the Republican Party, and has positioned Hungary as a model for conservatism and far-right policies.

Orbán’s relationship with China also raises alarm bells. China is the largest foreign investor in Hungary, and the two countries continue to deepen their economic and security ties, despite criticism from Hungary’s NATO allies and the EU. Last week, Orbán welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping to Budapest, and the leaders signed new agreements to expand economic and cultural cooperation.

As a member of NATO, Hungary’s shift towards authoritarianism and its alliances with Russia and China pose a serious threat to bipartisan American interests. The U.S. Embassy in Budapest has been vocal in expressing these concerns and calling out the Orbán government’s human rights abuses and corruption.

In March 2024, U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Pressman said Washington will respond to Budapest’s “dangerously unhinged anti-American messaging” and “expanding relationship with Russia.” At a campaign event in March 2024, President Joe Biden took aim at Orbán, accusing him of seeking a dictatorship.

Comments like these against an American ally are uncommon, but Pressman stressed, “With other allies we engage, we collaborate, we work together, even where we have differences. Here, that doesn’t work – until we act.”

Suffocating Civil Society

The human rights defenders with whom I spoke specifically cited legislation and other tactics designed to suffocate civil society in Hungary. The Hungarian parliament passed a law in December that establishes a new authority to investigate individuals or organizations accused of serving foreign interests, building on its own demonization of the United States and the EU despite – and because of — their years of support to Hungary’s civil society and democratic development. The law also imposes criminal penalties on those who use foreign financing for election campaigns.

The measure is similar to the “foreign agents” legislation that Putin’s government has used to silence opposition in Russia since 2022. The intergovernmental Council of Europe human rights and democracy organization had argued against the legislation in Hungary, which is a member of the Council. The United States also had vocally opposed it on grounds that it, “equips the Hungarian government with draconian tools that can be used to intimidate and punish those with views not shared by the ruling party.”

According to Stefánia Kapronczay, director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, this law is intentionally vague: “The new law could be used for anything, meaning not just against NGOs, but also against private citizens.” Orbán’s tight grip on media also makes it extremely difficult to challenge the government’s anti-NGO narratives. The Hungarian government invests hundreds of millions of euros in propaganda and smear campaigns against civil society and the political opposition.

Fidesz’s nationalist rhetoric has also normalized far-right ideology, and emboldened extremist groups across the country. Hungary has become a popular destination for far-right extremists across Europe and the United States, adding to the pressures on civil society and minority communities.

Antisemitism features heavily in the government’s propaganda, particularly on the topic of Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros, igniting antisemitic sentiments. Soros has been demonized for years by the Fidesz government for his support of human rights organizations. Fidesz propaganda has included posters and billboards of Soros, some of which invoked antisemitic World War II-era imagery.

For many years, Human Rights First and other leading rights organizations have detailed attacks on Hungary’s civil society by Fidesz. Now, with the upcoming election, activists are on the frontlines defending against Orbán’s assault on democracy and the rule of law.

Civil society leaders, human rights lawyers, and independent journalists are continuing their work to hold the government accountable for human rights abuses and corruption. In response to the new law, organizations like the Hungarian Helsinki Committee have mobilized to support and protect civil society organizations with their legal expertise.

Criminal Penalties

While previous Orbán legislation that targets civil society has not been fully enforced, activists stressed that the criminal punishment attached to the new law is particularly concerning, and there’s no way to be sure how the government will use it. Human rights lawyers anticipate that the only likely consequence of non-compliance with the new authority will be the mention of the alleged offender in a government report, but there are no legal remedies to challenge a government report that could damage an organization’s reputation.

“There is a level of fear across society of retaliation. Self-censoring is an issue, not just for human rights activists but for artists, academics, and others too,” says Dávid Vig, director at Amnesty International Hungary.

Human rights defenders in Hungary say the United States can help. Congress should continue to publicly denounce anti-NGO legislation in Hungary and defend the right of local NGOs to accept international funding and operate free from restrictions. In February 2024, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a resolution condemning democratic backsliding in Hungary. Leadership from the U.S. Helsinki Commission, made up of members of the House and Senate and several executive branch officials, raised concerns in February that Hungary’s new law and recent actions “undermine the collective commitment to democratic values in Europe.”

Activists recommend that Congress authorize and appropriate funding to strengthen Hungary’s civil society and independent media, including support for smaller civil society organizations and democracy initiatives outside of Hungary’s capital. In 2022, USAID announced a Central Europe Program to strengthen democratic institutions, civil society, and independent media. Human rights defenders in Hungary stress that the funding is spread thin across seven countries in the region, and more resources are needed to support their work.

Rights activists also encourage members of Congress to visit Hungary to meet with them and hear firsthand how the United States can most effectively support their work. A bipartisan delegation of U.S. senators last visited Hungary in February 2024 to seek approval from the government for Sweden’s NATO bid. Members of the Hungarian-American Congressional Caucus, which includes 20 active members from 15 states, are especially encouraged to visit the country and meet with activists.

The elections in Hungary – and the European Union — are less than a month away. Members of Congress should speak out loudly, and soon, to show civil society in Budapest and elsewhere that they are not alone.

IMAGE: Demonstrators walk past a banner reading ‘Stop Putin – Stop the dictatorship – Stop propaganda – Stop Orban!’ which is displayed during a demonstration for an independent news service and against the pro-government media coverage of the state television network, in front of the network’s headquarters in Budapest, Hungary, on November 4, 2022. (Photo by ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images)