Thousands of Hungarians rallied in Budapest on Saturday against what they said were attempts by the right wing government to silence critical voices, in the latest mass protest triggered by a new university law.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government, which has been in power since 2010, has faced big protests in the past two weeks after it passed legislation that targets a top international university founded in Budapest by billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros, 

Former Canadian Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff is the president of Central European University (CEU) and has said Orban is holding the school hostage to settle a personal beef with Soros.

“I think he thinks that he can take a Soros institution hostage, but we’re not actually a Soros institution in the sense that I don’t answer to Mr. Soros. I answer to trustees, and it’s an independent institution,” Ignatieff told CBC Radio’s As It Happens.

Orban said earlier on Saturday that the parliamentary elections next year would decide whether a government fighting for the national interest will remain in power or forces serving foreign interests will gain control.

Orban has long criticized civil society organizations funded by Hungarian-born Soros, accusing them of opposing his tough migration policies and supporting illegal migration.

He says the Soros-founded CEU has violated Hungarian rules — an accusation the university rejects. His government also wants to tighten rules on non-governmental organizations.

The new rules demand bilateral agreements with the home countries of universities from outside the European Union, and require schools to establish campuses in their home countries. 

CEU will be the only school in the country that faces closure when the law comes into effect on Jan. 1, 2018.

Among the thousands of protesters gathered in Budapest at a peaceful rally on Saturday, some carried European Union flags and banners with messages such as “Viktor the game is over” and “I stand with CEU.” 

“It is unbearable what is happening here, I would like to live in a democracy,” said Agnes Bojte, 40, who makes documentaries. “It is like the air is getting thinner and thinner in this country.”

“Media, civilians, students and Hungarian people cannot be silenced in their own country,” one of the speakers said.

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A woman takes part during a protest in Budapest on Saturday against a new law that would force Central European University to close or leave the country. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

The EU and the United States have sharply criticized 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 that 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 serving foreign interests,” he said.

He said what was happening in Hungary now was a rehearsal for the campaign for the vote in a year’s time.

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The mass protest was triggered by a new university law in Budapest. Former Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, president of Central European University, has said Hungary’s Viktor Orban is holding the school hostage to settle a personal beef with founder George Soros. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

Recent polls give the ruling Fidesz party around 30 per cent support, 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 — has 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.

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