Orbán Government Uses ‘Sovereignty Protection Authority’ to Target Opposition

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 16

(Source: Miniszterelnok.hu)

Executive Summary:

  • The Hungarian National Assembly passed a controversial law establishing the “Sovereignty Protection Authority” (SZVH) to combat alleged foreign interference in the country’s political processes.
  • The Sovereignty Protection Law itself bears similarities to Russian law in targeting alleged foreign agents, limiting opposition parties’ ability to run in future elections, and raising concerns about the potential misuse of campaign funds.
  • The Hungarian opposition and the international community warn that the SZVH will be used to politically intimidate the Orbán government’s opponents, resembling the Russian “foreign agents” law.

On December 12, the Hungarian National Assembly passed a much-debated law on “protecting national sovereignty.” The ruling Fidesz-KDNP (Christian Democratic People’s Party) alliance of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has claimed the measure is necessary to combat undue foreign interference in Hungary’s political processes. Under the law, which came into force this month, the government has set up the so-called “Sovereignty Protection Authority” (Szuverenitásvédelmi Hivatal; SZVH), which has been tasked with monitoring and analyzing potential foreign interference (Telex.hu, December 12, 2023). The SZVH is led by right-wing political commentator Tamás Lánczi, Orbán’s former speechwriter, and will be responsible for producing an annual report and advising the government on how to counter malign interference in elections. More importantly, candidates for any Hungarian elections deemed to have received foreign campaign funds may face up to three years in prison (Hvg.hu, December 12, 2023). With this measure, Orbán seeks to limit the opposition’s ability to campaign in future elections and maintain his coalition’s stranglehold on power.

The Hungarian Parliament approved the Sovereignty Protection Law despite considerable domestic and international criticism. In addition to opposition parties, more than 100 Hungarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) protested the law, arguing that the SZVH will be used as a tool of political intimidation to target organizations that are critical of the government’s autocratic practices (Átlátszó, December 2, 2023). Internationally, the Council of Europe called on Hungarian parliamentarians to strike down the law. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said the legal measure is “a dangerous provocation” against Hungary’s independent media outlets. And the US Embassy in Budapest called it a “step back” for Hungarian democracy (Rtl.hu, December 21, 2023). 

Under Orbán’s watch, Hungary has endured a period of serious democratic backsliding. This ongoing process makes the high level of domestic and international criticism notable for three primary reasons. First, the new authority, though nominally independent, is poised to serve the Orbán government’s political agenda by targeting its partisan and non-partisan opponents. Lánczi, newly appointed head of the SZVH, already announced that efforts will focus on monitoring and investigating Hungarian media outlets to map alleged foreign interference (Média1, January 23).

Second, the SZVH has been established in an EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organization member whose vulnerability to malign Russian and Chinese influence has been growing at an alarming rate. The SZVH will likely face criticism from the West for its prospective failure to investigate Moscow’s and Beijing’s influence operations in Hungary while targeting Orbán’s domestic opponents. 

Third, Hungary’s Sovereignty Protection Law strikingly resembles Russia’s controversial “foreign agent” law. The Vladimir Putin regime has used the law to target elements of Russian civil society in opposition to the Kremlin. According to Hungarian investigative and fact-checking platform Lakmusz, the similarities between the Hungarian and Russian laws include carrying out politically motivated efforts to identify alleged foreign agents, designating non-threatening societal actors as threats, and tasking nominally independent state agencies with creating ideological enemies that both governments can target to gain political benefit (Lakmusz.hu, December 4, 2023). At the same time, there is a notable difference. While the Russian law includes a detailed list of entities Moscow can target, the Hungarian law is primarily aimed at entities that intend to participate in parliamentary and local elections.

The similarities in Budapest’s and Moscow’s respective legal measures have alarmed the opposition and many civil society actors in Hungary. The ultimate goal of the Sovereignty Protection Law, however, is not to initiate a wider crackdown on anti-government actors. Instead, the measure, which coincides with Hungary’s double-election year (local and EU parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held on June 9), seems to be intended to limit opposition parties’ ability to campaign effectively in the upcoming and future elections.

The law itself represents the Orbán government’s political response to recent revelations of an opposition campaign finance scandal. Last year, it came to light that two parties within the multi-party opposition alliance for the 2022 parliamentary election—the center-left 99 Movement (99 Mozgalom) of Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony and the Hungary for All Movement (Mindenki Magyarországa Mozgalom) of opposition candidate Péter Márki-Zay—received 3 billion forints ($8.49 million) in support from Action for Democracy, a US-Hungarian NGO. While the donation does not constitute classic foreign or election interference as suggested by pro-Fidesz media (Magyar Nemzet, June 30, 2023), the opposition’s use of the funds proved to be concerning and questionable (24.hu, February 28, 2023). Action for Democracy has denied any claims of foreign interference and condemned Budapest’s allegations, arguing that the corresponding investigations of the Hungarian secret services were politically motivated.

Consequently, the Sovereignty Protection Law can be expected to primarily focus on keeping the Hungarian public’s attention on the opposition’s alleged dubious campaign financing practices as the electoral season is fast approaching. The ruling Fidesz party is largely expected to win the upcoming EU elections and perform well in local elections as the opposition remains fractured. Opposition parties seem to be much more focused on fighting each other than competing with the ruling coalition. While there appears to be no electoral risk for Fidesz, the ruling party is constantly in search of new ways to mobilize its voter base and rally pro-government voters against the opposition’s challengers. For now, the new law will not mean direct sanctions on opposition figures, as the SZVH only holds an advisory role. Instead, Fidesz will likely use the SZVH as a tool to target political opponents.