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article imageHungary's Orban comes out fighting after EU setback

By Peter MURPHY (AFP)     Sep 14, 2018 in Politics

The European Parliament's threat to unleash sanctions against Hungary over democracy concerns was a stunning political blow against Prime Minister Viktor Orban, but his dominance at home means defeat can still be spun as a win.

A resolution passed in Strasbourg Wednesday ruled that the Hungarian government posed a "systemic threat" to the EU's founding values of democracy and the rule of law.

The vote, backed by Manuel Weber, the head of the European People's Party -- the grouping Orban's Fidesz party also belongs to -- could in theory lead to Budapest being stripped of its EU voting rights.

But Orban has pronounced himself unconcerned, telling domestic radio Friday there was "no danger" for Hungary in the vote and that in any case he would help remove what he called the "pro-immigration majority" at European Parliament elections next May.

After the vote, headlines in pro-Orban media outlets accused a coalition of liberals and allies of US billionaire George Soros of wreaking revenge against Hungarians for daring to oppose migration.

"The pro-immigration side took revenge by cheating," said Magyar Idok, a daily newspaper considered a government mouthpiece.

According to a TV channel owned by Orban ally and Hollywood film producer Andy Vajna, the premier was "cheered across Europe" after the ruling.

In a debate prior to the vote, Orban portrayed the charges as an insult to the honour of Hungarians, but a poll in the left-leaning Nepszava newspaper Friday indicated some 57 percent of respondents pinned the blame on government policies.

On the street, Hungarians revealed mixed feelings.

"It's a national shame that it has got to this stage, that Hungary is on trial before Europe," said Dezso Hatvani, a shopper at a Budapest market, adding he hoped any sanctions are levelled at the government and not at ordinary people.

"It was a stitch-up against Viktor, he shouldn't ever go back there to listen to such insults," said another shopper, 52-year-old Orsi Vinczeler.

- 'Under attack' -

"This is a big defeat for Fidesz, particularly as the party is not used to defeats," said Csaba Toth of the Republikon think-tank.

"No matter how they try to spin it -- and they will use it for domestic political gain, strengthening their narrative that Hungary is under attack from Brussels -- they hoped this resolution would not pass," said Toth.

The setback for Orban is unlikely to change Budapest's approach to its tangles with the Soros-founded Central European University (CEU) and human rights NGOs, or its clampdown on judicial independence.

"If Orban before the vote did not promise any agreement or compromise, why expect that he will do it afterwards?" said Peter Kreko, head of the Political Capital think-tank in Budapest.

With fresh European Parliament elections on the horizon, Orban's rhetoric "could become even more hysterical," according to the analyst.

The government had already been framing the pending European vote as an apocalyptic "battle" for the future of the continent between pro- and anti-immigration "forces".

- Fresh onslaught -

Orban's Fidesz party won almost 50 percent of the vote in Hungarian parliamentary elections in April, although OSCE observers said the ballot took place in an "adverse climate" with Fidesz enjoying a strong media advantage.

A series of street demonstrations challenging the legitimacy of the result drew tens of thousands of protestors but soon petered out.

"During the election campaign we discussed all of the issues -– including the CEU, the NGOs... and the people decided on these issues," Orban said Tuesday after the debate in Strasbourg.

Emboldened by his third consecutive landslide win and two-thirds parliamentary majority, Orban has pushed on with his onslaught against NGOs he accuses of encouraging migration.

Meanwhile, pro-Orban newspapers have launched attacks against artists and directors of cultural institutions deemed critical of the government.

Several of the demoralised opposition parties, derided by some for opting to take up their seats in the new parliament, have organised a pro-EU demonstration Sunday to celebrate the vote and urge citizens to stand up to Orban.

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