A government billboard is seen in Budapest, Hungary, February 14, 2018. The billboard reads: 'Soros wants to transplant millions from Africa and the Middle East'.

© 2018 Reuters

Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party won a third consecutive term in last weekend’s election, and is poised to take two thirds of the 199-seat Parliament, with Viktor Orban remaining Prime Minister.

The last time Fidesz had a supermajority in Parliament, it used it to push through a series of problematic unilateral changes to the country’s constitution and laws that weakened checks and balances on the executive. There are already signs that the new government plans to deepen its crackdown on independent groups and critical voices.

The morning after the election, a government spokesperson announced it wants parliament to approve as early as May so-called “Stop Soros” laws designed to silence groups working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, particularly those funded by George Soros, whom the government portrays as public enemy number one.

During the election campaign, Fidesz smeared journalists and nongovernmental organizations exposing rights violations and high-level corruption. Government-friendly media also played on the migrant threat.

On April 6, Hungary’s highest court declared that a publicly-funded billboard campaign depicting migrants as a threat to the country had violated election rules because it promoted Fidesz party messages using public funds. Despite the ruling, the billboards remain in place.

In recent weeks, investigative journalists have uncovered how a private intelligence company recorded representatives of various nongovernmental organizations in the country and abroad saying things they believed could “incriminate” them as “supporters of migration.” The government subsequently used the secret recordings to discredit the groups, and issued a statement saying that “the activities of the Soros organizations must be banned.”

Hungary’s government may claim its victory gives it a mandate to curb the work of civil society. But as a member of the European Union and Council of Europe, Hungary is bound by regional and international norms. Those norms guarantee free and equal participation in political and public affairs and protect freedoms of association, assembly and expression. Instead of cracking down on dissent, Hungary’s government should respect the rule of law and guarantee space for civil society groups to do their work.

EU member states and institutions, and Fidesz’s partners in the European People’s Party political group, should send a clear signal that winning an election does not give carte blanche to flout EU values. They, too, have a responsibility to help preserve space for Hungary’s civil society.