BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban is gambling that a new law targeting a top Budapest university will help shore up his core support ahead of next year's election, but the scale of protests it has prompted suggests he may have gone too far this time.
The Central European University (CEU), founded by billionaire financier and liberal philanthropist George Soros, faces the risk of closure under the legislation, which Orban's critics say is part of a wider crackdown on dissent in Hungary.
Orban, a right-wing populist, has long criticised civil society organisations funded by Hungarian-born Soros, accusing them of opposing his tough migration policies. He says the CEU has violated Hungarian rules - a charge the university rejects.
In the fourth major demonstration against the new law in the past two weeks, thousands of students marched on parliament late on Wednesday chanting "Europe! Europe!" and "Free country! Free university!"
Also on Wednesday, the European Commission - often at odds with Orban -- threatened Hungary with legal action over a series of measures including the education law, saying they ran counter to the EU's values of human rights and democracy.
The United States similarly urged Hungary, a NATO ally, to suspend implementation of the education law.
However Orban has often thrived on confrontation since taking power in 2010, depicting his foes - including the European Union, foreign-funded non-governmental organisations and the International Monetary Fund - as a threat to Hungary's sovereignty. This strengthens his image at home as a defender of national interests against perceived foreign meddling -- this time by Soros.
The strategy has worked well for him so far. Latest opinion polls put support for his conservative Fidesz party at around 30 percent, far ahead of his nearest rivals, the radical nationalist Jobbik party and the Socialists, each on about 10 percent.
The CEU, established in 1991 after the fall of communism, is a tempting target for Orban. The "open society" model promoted by Soros in eastern Europe over decades is at odds with the "illiberal democracy" that Orban has vowed to build in Hungary.
In the past seven years, Orban, 53, has eliminated checks on his power by taking control of the public media, curbing the powers of the constitutional court, and placing loyalists in top positions at public institutions.
"With its ample funding, international prestige and support for liberal scholarship, CEU has been a significant obstacle to Orban's ideological end-game," said Eurasia Group, a political consultancy, in a recent note.
"... The attack is part of a broader Fidesz campaign to frame foreign NGOs and foundations ... as a liberal bogeyman ahead of ... elections," it said.
Echoing that view, Csaba Toth, director of the liberal think-tank Republikon, said: "The government's narrative (on the CEU and Soros) works for Fidesz voters. This has been all planned out."
"The danger (for Orban) is if he digs in his heels and does not recognise a shift in public sentiment," Toth said.
Orban has described Soros as the main supporter of mass migration into Europe and says civil organisations funded by him are paid political activists representing foreign interests. He says the arrival of more than a million mostly Muslim migrants in Europe poses an existential threat to Western civilisation.
The government has said the aim of its education law was to address administrative shortcomings of foreign universities in Hungary.
In an apparent attempt to defuse the protests, Education Secretary Laszlo Palkovics suggested on Wednesday via a news website that the CEU, which specialises in social sciences, could continue to operate if it delivered its teaching and issued its degrees through its existing Hungarian sister school.
Expressing surprise at his comments, the CEU said the government should initiate negotiations instead of hinting at possible solutions in the press.
The campaign against the CEU has left even some long-time Fidesz voters puzzled.
Diana Urge-Vorsatz, a CEU professor who said she had voted for Fidesz, said she simply did not understand the accusations made by ruling politicians that suggested her university was a "factory of a certain ideology".
"This is not true, the CEU is extremely diverse. We represent many political perspectives, values and ideologies," the mother of seven told Reuters.
"I am extremely disappointed about what's happening to my university."
Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Gareth Jones