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FILE PHOTO: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during his state-of-the-nation address in Budapest, Hungary, February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh/File Photo

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By Krisztina Than and Marton Dunai

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary's ruling Fidesz party pushed strict new regulations for non-government organisations that get foreign funding through parliament on Tuesday despite calls from the European Parliament and rights groups for the bill to be dropped.

Under legislation drafted by right-wing populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government and pushed through by Fidesz, NGOs with foreign donations must register with the authorities and declare themselves as foreign-funded.

Though the government says it is trying to ensure greater transparency and protect Hungary from foreign influence, NGOs and human rights groups say the bill stigmatizes NGOs and is intended to stifle independent voices in the central European country.

The European Parliament has called for it to be withdrawn.

Since coming to power in 2010, Orban has blunted restraints on his power by taking control of much of the Hungarian media, curbing the powers of the constitutional court and placing loyalists in top positions at public institutions.

Orban, 54, who will seek re-election for a third consecutive term in April 2018, has been campaigning hard against NGOs funded by Hungarian billionaire George Soros, saying they were a "mafia-like" network employing paid political activists who posed a threat to national sovereignty.

Along with tough anti-immigrant rhetoric, such attacks on Soros fits well with Orban's domestic political agenda. His Fidesz party has a firm lead over the opposition in opinion polls.

"COSMETIC" CHANGES

The government last week backtracked on parts of the legislation to meet some of the objections from the Council of Europe's advisory panel, the Venice Commission.

However, Human Rights Watch (HRW) dismissed the amendments as "cosmetic". It also said the government had failed to consult with civic groups before adopting the bill.

"The amendments do not remove the provision to stigmatize organizations as "foreign funded," nor the risk of an organization being legally dissolved by the courts if it does not register as 'foreign funded'," HRW said in a statement.

"The draft law is about silencing critical voices in society."

Soros's Open Society Foundations, which disburse funding to several prominent NGOs in Hungary, warned on Monday that the law posed serious risks to democracy in Hungary.

The law "seeks to suppress democratic voices in Hungary just when the country needs them most. It attacks Hungarians who help fellow citizens challenge corruption and arbitrary power," OSF director Goran Buldioski said.

The European Parliament adopted a resolution last month condemning Hungary for the "serious deterioration" in the rule of law and fundamental rights, and called on the government to withdraw the bill on foreign-funded NGOs.

(Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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