Tens of thousands protest against ‘lex CEU’ in Budapest

Analysis

A huge crowd gathered in the heart of Budapest on Sunday to protest against the Hungarian government’s fast-tracked amendment to higher education law, commonly referred to as “lex CEU,” according to Hungarian online portal index.hu. Organizers estimated the crowd numbered 60-80,000, according to the daily.

Demonstrators hold their illuminated mobile phones in the air, urging President Áder not to sign the amendment. (Photo: MTI/Zoltán Balogh)

The demonstration started at Várkert Bazár below Buda Castle, where protesters called on Hungary’s President János Áder not to sign the amendment today, which is his deadline for doing so, or to send it back to Parliament for further discussion and possible modification. The amendment threatens to make the continued operation of the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest impossible or impractical.

The crowd then marched over the Chain Bridge to the Parliament building, taking almost one and a half hours, index.hu noted, commenting on the size of the crowd. While passing by the Central European University campus, the crowd chanted “Democracy for Hungary,” and “Don’t sign it, János,” according to index.hu reporters at the scene.

Although the protest officially came to an end at 7 p.m., a huge crowd remained in front of Parliament, facing a massive wall of police officers. The protest reportedly took on a more anti-Fidesz tone, with chants of “dirty Fidesz” and “Orbán get out.”

According to reports, protesters in the first row jostled with police officers protecting the Parliament building. A reporter of state-owned all-news channel M1 was allegedly insulted and police officers claimed to have had empty bottles thrown at them, index.hu reported.

Later some thousands of protesters marched to the building of the state secretariat for education on Szalay utca and then later to the headquarters of Fidesz on Lendvay utca. Some hundreds of protesters marched on to Heroesʼ Square and lingered there until after 10 p.m., according to index.hu.

While Fidesz members have defended the amendment since it was passed, saying that protesters hitting the streets earlier were either foreigners or those who do not understand the amendment, all eyes are now on President Áder, waiting to see whether he signs the amendment and the law takes effect, or if he questions its constitutionality.

‘Transparency’ versus ‘academic freedom’

The amendment, which Fidesz claims is aimed at enhancing the transparency of foreign institutions operating in the country, but which CEU insists is particularly targeted at the university founded in 1991 by Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist George Soros, has met with worldwide opposition. Renowned institutions and academics have voiced their support for CEU, asking the government to drop the amendment, while leading international media outlets have run opinion pieces condemning the government and accusing it of applying “anti-democratic” measures.

While those opposing the measure fear “academic freedom” is at stake, government spokesman Zoltán Kovács wrote in a blog entry entitled “CEU: facts versus frenzy” that the “new legislation aims to sort out a number of irregularities and inconsistencies.” Kovács  argued that the amendment is only closing loopholes that had let foreign institutions such as CEU operate “unlawfully.” He also criticized CEU for handing out both Hungarian and American diplomas, despite the fact that he himself has acquired several qualifications at the university, according to his publicly available résumé.

Events related to the legislation have been speedy, and are expected to keep up their momentum, as President Áder reveals his opinion about the measure today, while the European Parliament is scheduled to discuss the matter at the end of April.

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