I spent a week with Hungary's beleaguered opposition as they took to the streets to contest Prime Minister Viktor Orban's growing authoritarianism.
The warm sun balanced just above the jagged Buda Hills as hundreds of thousands of Hungarians spilled into the streets of Budapest to commemorate Revolution Day, an annual celebration honoring the country’s 1848 uprising when Magyar nationalists fought for independence from the Habsburgs. Yet, the postcard-perfect backdrop stood in stark contrast to the widening political split between the government and growing opposition movements, each of which staged their own competing demonstrations — at precisely the same times — just far enough from the other to prevent the din of their rallying cries from overlapping.
Boulevards were emptied of cars as the city transformed into a patchwork of fervent and sometimes volatile protests. In front of the neo-Gothic parliament building, skirting the edge of the Danube River, was the pro-government rally featuring headliner Prime Minister Viktor Orban. A mile south of Parliament, past a boardwalk lined with tables of foot-long pretzels doused in sugar, and perched at the foot of the chalk-white Elisabeth Bridge, was the main opposition’s demonstration run by the civic group "Milla" (which stands for "One Million for Press Freedom in Hungary"). And in the center of one of the city’s main intersections, the radical, far-right Jobbik Party set up a small stage flanked by a 12-foot high television screen.
Preaching to a clogged square of roughly 100,000 supporters, Orban warned the European Union that Hungary would not tolerate interference on any level. Since sweeping into office in 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s center-right Fidesz party, which has a two-thirds super-majority, has locked horns with critics at home and abroad — including the European Union, International Monetary Fund, and even the U.S. State Department — over swipes at media freedoms, an overhauled constitution, the economy and judiciary reforms. It’s become something of a bête noire for the international media, alarmed that something awry is happening in this small, landlocked country of 10 million. "We will not be a colony, we will be slaves no longer," said Orban, referencing a passage from a poem written by Hungarian poet and revolutionary, Sandor Petofi, amid chants of his name and repeated bursts of applause. "We do not need the unsolicited assistance of foreigners wanting to guide our hands."
His fiery rhetoric came on the heels of an unprecedented decision from the European Commission (EC) to withhold 495 million euros of aid, unless steps are taken by Hungary to lower its deficit. The punitive measure was softened slightly by an addendum stating funds could be reinstated by as early as June should the country’s budget policies align with EU stipulations.
News of the EC announcement made no dent in the prime minister’s appeal to 75-year old Tamas Buranyi, who attended the March 15 rally with a Hungarian flag fastened to his lapel and another in his hand. "In this extremely difficult time, Fidesz is doing what is best for the country," he said. Interweaving between the crowds were several hundred right-leaning Polish citizens who had traveled to Budapest for the holiday as a show of support to Orban and his policies. "The criticism against his personality," Buranyi added, "[It] makes it very difficult to govern the country properly."
Orban’s barrage also took aim against foreign meddling with the country’s newly adopted constitution. "We write our own constitution, we don’t ask for help from foreigners who want to guide our hands," he said. The crowds, many of whom were wrapped in floor-length swathes of the country’s red, green, and white flag, fired back: "We will protect it!"
Both Orban and his supporters might find their stance a bit more difficult to defend when the Venice Commission, legal advisers to the Council of Europe, releases its report on Hungary’s controversial constitutional reforms early next week. A version of the document, leaked to the German newspaper, Der Spiegel, is critical of recent reforms, stating among other things that the country’s three-month-old National Judicial Office — run by a single person with the power to replace and select judges, as well as the cases they work on — "threatens the independence of the judiciary."
The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) was one of four Hungarian NGO’s invited to speak before the Venice Commission this January. "This report has the power to force change and to turn back the rule of law in Hungary," said Szabolcs Hegyi, head of political rights program at the HCLU, and one of the presenters. "The government should in no way dismiss or disregard this report."
On the Elisabeth Bridge, which stretches between Buda and Pest, were the Milla attendees. Here, tens of thousands of protesters chanted, "We’re not giving up!" and "Long live freedom!" as speakers from several humanitarian, media, and minority organizations spoke of the need to fight for their rights in the face of recent government overhauls they see as chipping away at their country’s democratic structures.
One of the event’s earliest speakers was the recently crowned winner of the simulated online "Alternative Presidential Election," the Hungarian "gangsta" rapper Dopeman. Spearheaded by a mix of cultural producers and political activists, candidates for the election had only one requirement to fulfill in order to qualify for running: submit a two-minute-long video answering the question, "What you would do if you were president?" On stage, Dopeman, who is of Roma origin — Hungary’s largest minority that has been facing a rise in violence from extremists — read a passage from one of his most famous songs: "I am a Hungarian. I am a Jew. I am a Gypsy. I am a mixed-blood Aryan. And I am a Hungarian."
Peter Molnar, a former Hungarian parliamentary member and one of the drafters of the 1996 Hungarian media law, which paved the way for starting a dual broadcasting system similar to those found in Western Europe, also took to the stage demanding the abolishment of the recently formed Media Council. A contentious law in effect from last January combined public media outlets into one central body and authorized a Media Council, comprised of just government appointees, to issue hefty fines for violations (ostensibly for offending the human dignity of minorities, but in practice more about stifling free speech). The law was revised, but the Media Council remains, and the government maintains the new regulations abide by European standards. For Vice President of the European Commission Neelie Kroes, the changes requested aren’t happening fast enough. "The Hungarian government needs to do more and act quickly to reassure" she told the European Parliament this past February. "I continue to have grave concerns about the current situation."
At the rally, Molnar posed the question: "What does the Hungarian nation wish?" To which he asked the crowd to answer with the first of the country’s famous "12 Points," a list of dictates composed by the leaders of the March 15, 1848 uprising: "Freedom of the press and abolition of censorship."
As Molnar spoke, a combat boot-clad and bomber jacket-wearing bulge of far-right protesters who ditched Jobbik’s event in an attempt to disrupt the Milla demonstration occupied a small triangle at the base of the Milla demonstration, which stretched hundreds of meters deep into the Pest side, along Free Press Boulevard. A speaker, placed outside a nearby café, blasted Hungarian folk songs, drowning out the sounds of the opposition rally’s presenters. Encircling the far-right crowds were dozens of riot police. Standing in the center, among the far-right antagonists, was 28-year old Attila Bagusz, a waiter in a Budapest hotel. "I decided to come here because I am against Milla and their ideas of a liberal democracy," he said. "What is most important to me is to remember our roots and save our cultural treasures."
Minutes later the group began screaming "Ria Ria Hungaria," a traditional slogan adopted by the far right. They held up anti-EU posters and railed against the IMF. A few cries of "Go home!" were lobbed from the Milla side. A stream of helmeted riot police funneled into the small strip of land separating the two groups. To which the far-right agitator raised their arms in a Nazi salute and shouted: "Filthy Jews."
The phrase galvanized the crowds on the Milla side to begin collectively chanting, "Nazis, go home!" Almost immediately, police pushed the Milla crowds back. And as soon as the Milla rally finished, they were ordered to clear from the street, quickly deflating tensions.
Holding out till nightfall was the Jobbik rally. On the periphery, a crowd gathered around two men cracking long leather whips, used for steering cattle, against the asphalt. Up on stage was the Hungarian rock band, P. Mobil, singing: "I am the future and I am the past. Take care of me because I am dying out."
Making good on their calls against outside interference, a few hundred hard-core, far right supporters attempted to storm a high rise where the IMF has its offices, a stones throw from the American embassy. They were quickly thwarted by the police. Hungary hopes to secure a 20 billion Euro IMF-EU loan to repay its public debts, which is one of the highest in the EU.
Holding tight to his two-thirds majority, it seems unlikely Orban will feel pressure from within to reform anytime soon. His actions since taking office have made it clear that pressure from Europe is unlikely to turn his government’s core policies — although that could change if the IMF deal, which needs to be signed off by the EU, is seriously threatened.
Meanwhile, the left-liberal opposition is still heavily fractured and extremely weak. The only party that has gained any real momentum in the last two years has been Jobbik. And yet, there was a glimmer of hope this week with a court ruling in favor of the independent radio station, Klubradio. Just three months ago, the Media Council announced the radio station’s frequency, used for over a decade, would be given over to an unknown broadcaster. The court ruling restoring the frequency to Klubradio was seen by the opposition as an indication there are still some institutions here in Hungary that act independently.
Back at the unofficial Milla headquarters, the smoky Seagull Bar in the heart of the city’s Jewish quarter, was co-organizer Adam Schonberger. Behind him, the walls were strewn with political murals and chalkboards brimming with listings for upcoming events. Despite the standoff, and the nearby Jobbik gathering, the crowd here was ebullient as they flipped between phones and laptops, sharing images and anecdotes from the day.
"I feel inspired that things are finally moving in the right direction," he said. "It is about working together and speaking up for democracy," Schonberger added as participants came by to shake his hand. "If we were just able to just hint at those ideas, then I think we were successful."