April 15, 2017 / 8:27 AM / 4 months ago

Hungary's Orban sets stakes for 2018 election as protests persist

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives at the city hall "Campidoglio" (Capitoline Hill) as EU leaders arrive for a meeting on the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, in Rome, Italy March 25, 2017.Tony Gentile/Files

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary's 2018 election will decide whether a government fighting for the national interest remains in power or forces serving foreign interests gain control, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Saturday.

Orban, whose right-wing government has been in power since 2010, has faced a series of mass protests in the past two weeks after it passed legislation that targets a top international university founded by billionaire financier and liberal philanthropist George Soros in Budapest.

Orban has long criticised civil society organisations funded by Hungarian-born Soros, accusing them of opposing his tough migration policies and supporting illegal migration. He says the CEU has violated Hungarian rules - an accusation the university rejects. His government also wants to tighten rules on non-governmental organisations.

The EU and the United States have sharply criticised the new legislation. Rights groups say it is part of a wider crackdown on dissent in Hungary, after curbs on the public media, state institutions and the constitutional court.

Orban, speaking for the first time since the protests began, told pro-government newspaper Magyar Idok such conflicts were part of a fight for national sovereignty.

"... In Hungary the national government is under continuous pressure and attacks so what is at stake at all elections is whether we will have a parliament and government serving the interests of Hungarian people or it will serve foreign interests," he said.

He said what happening in Hungary now was a rehearsal for the campaign for the vote in a year's time. Recent polls give Fidesz around 30 percent support and with that a firm lead over opposition parties.

"If we accepted that Brussels or other political or financial centres dictated ... what should happen in our country we would not have conflicts," he said in an interview. "But the history of Hungarians is that of a history of freedom fights."

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.

Analysts say Orban wants to solidify his nationalist-minded voter base ahead of the election. [L8N1HK2FE]

Orban said his government, with its big majority in parliament, was determined to carry on with its policies to keep out migrants and preserve Christian civilisation.

"The government is determined, I don't see any sign of retreat," Orban said.

Thousands of students marched on parliament on Wednesday chanting "Europe! Europe!" and "Free country! Free university!"

A new protest will be held on Saturday at 1530 GMT.

Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Alison Williams

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