Disappointing outcome in #Hungary today. CDA values transparency & civil society as key facets of healthy democratic societies. #LexNGO— Chrystia Freeland (@cafreeland) June 13, 2017
A few days later the US Department of State issued a statement expressing concern over the new law that "unfairly burdens and targets civil society, which is working to fight corruption and protect civil liberties."
Hungary, I can assure you, also values transparency and civil society. We understand the important role that NGOs play in a democratic society. What these and other critics overlook, however, is that NGOs, because of the legitimacy they seem to offer, are increasingly used by foreign interests – with neither democratic mandate nor accountability to the citizens – to influence the internal politics and sometimes election outcomes of a country.
We’re not alone on this. This is a growing concern in many western democracies including – wait for it – Canada.
Yes, Canada. “Foreign money funneled towards Canadian political advocacy groups affected the outcome of the 2015 federal election,” the Calgary Herald reported last month, citing a report that had been submitted to Canada’s elections bureau.
The report, entitled “Elections Canada Complaint Regarding Foreign Influence in the 2015 Canadian Election,” says that groups colluded to avoid election spending limits, which contravenes the election law.
“[T]he outcome of the 2015 election was skewed by money from wealthy foreigners,” the report alleges.
One such public interest group, according to a report in the Toronto Sun, openly says that it aims “to affect federal election outcomes” and received support from the San Francisco-based Tides Foundation. The Tides Foundation, according to the Sun, has reportedly received millions of dollars of support from George Soros. Perhaps just a coincidence.
What are Canadian lawmakers doing about this foreign interference in their elections? They have proposed changes to the election law that would call for increased monitoring of NGOs receiving foreign funding and possibly even the elimination of the foreign sources. Cutting off the foreign funding would be more severe than the Hungarian law, which simply requires NGOs to be transparent about their foreign funding.
Unlike the criticism of Hungary’s law, nobody seems to be ringing the alarm bell that Canada is preparing an “NGO crackdown.”
Regarding the United States, Prime Minister Orbán has pointed to the strict requirements of the US law called the Foreign Agents Registration Act, and I wrote about it on the blog (here and here). Some have dismissed the comparison, saying that FARA tends to be applied to lobbyists and not NGOs. But when it concerns groups getting involved in political issues, attempting to influence political outcomes, and doing so with foreign funding, the United States requires that kind of foreign-funded activity to be reported.
Attempts by foreign entities to influence politics has become a growing concern in many democracies. In Hungary, like Canada, we’ve seen it happen in our NGO sector. Hungary’s new NGO law simply requires them to be transparent about their foreign funding.