Politics

Hungarian protesters are starting to rock the boat

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Protesters denounce corruption during a rally on what organizers called a "Day of Indignation" in Budapest last week.

Credit:

Atilla Kisbendenek

BERLIN, Germany — Hungarian street protests against government policies and plans are morphing into calls for ousting Prime Minister Viktor Orban, exposing the first chinks in the popular leader's armor to emerge since he took power four years ago.

Initially inspired by a scheme to tax internet users, tens of thousands of protesters have since turned out to demand a crackdown on corruption, an end to spending cuts in education and a reversal of Orban's moves to centralize government powers.

With the prime minister’s center-right Fidesz Party enjoying a two-thirds majority in the parliament, the demonstrators face a long, uphill slog before they can hope for a change in government.

Nevertheless, tens of thousands of young people chanting “Orban go away!” and “Down with Fidesz!” have effectively drawn a line in the sand against the prime minister's stated goal to transform Hungary into an “illiberal state” like China or Russia, political analysts say.

Unlike anti-capitalist protesters in Greece, Hungarians are calling for a return to the moderate pro-Western policies of the country’s recent past, says Peter Kreko of the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital.

“There are European Union flags in the crowd and even Norwegian flags, which is funny on the one hand but on the other really expresses the Western orientation of the youngsters.”

In June, before the protests had begun, Orban drew criticism for raids on nonprofits that received financing from Norway.

At the end of October, as many as 100,000 demonstrators turned out to rally against an internet usage tax of $0.60 per gigabyte of data.

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After the government caved to their demands by shelving its plan, the movement’s leaders quickly pivoted to target corruption, inspiring tens of thousands to challenge Orban's refusal to sack the head of the country's tax authority, who was banned from entering the US because of bribery allegations.

Although subsequent demonstrations — including a rally by teachers on Saturday protesting cuts to the education budget — have been even smaller, participants say the events are becoming more focused and better organized.

Slogans and speeches have taken aim at what the protesters see as Orban's dismantling of democratic institutions, undermining of freedom of the press and fiddling with the election system to benefit Fidesz, says a protester named Eszter Fero.

“It started over the internet tax, but that was just the last drop in the glass,” she says.

Whether the movement can sustain its momentum remains unclear, however.

The street actions have been limited to urban areas, while in the countryside, the far-right Jobbik Party poses Orban a greater challenge than the liberals.

Still, the demonstrations have been notable if only for progressing beyond the usual squabbling between the government and opposition activists.

Although it's too early for bold predictions, some activists are looking to Spain's far-left Podemos Party for inspiration. Podemos became that country’s second-largest political party by number of members and even won seats in the EU Parliament within four months of its formation in January.

“The mood is angry,” says former student leader and veteran protester Benedek Cseri. “And it is also like the masses are getting to know their strength.”

The authorities are downplaying the protests’ importance.

Although he admits the protests have had a “spontaneous element,” government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs says they were orchestrated by the opposition rather than the result of a genuine outpouring of anger.

“Street demonstrations are a natural component of any nation's daily life,” he said. “We don't see it as a threat to our development agenda.”

The protests’ main significance lies less in any immediate impact they may have than in signifying the start of something new, says Political Capital's Kreko.

“I don't think these protests can maintain the same intensity until [parliamentary elections in] 2018 or that they can sweep away the government,” he says. “What I can expect is that there will be more demonstrations and the mobilization capacity can remain.”

As recently as April, Orban was able to build on his populist, anti-EU rhetoric to strengthen Fidesz's two-thirds majority in parliament. That puts holding a no-confidence vote in the government out of the question.

The opposition faces huge problems at the same time. Its fractured leadership is about as unpopular with the protesters as the government itself.

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Even if demonstrators were able to agree on enough common ground to form a political party, various constitutional changes Orban has pushed through make it difficult for newly formed political groups to make an impact.

For now at least, Orban's move to postpone and repackage the internet tax — which government spokesman Kovacs now says was never the government's intention to pass in its current form — has galvanized normally apathetic young Hungarians who are disgusted with party politics.

That’s buoying the hopes of protesters like Fero, who says, “People could feel for the first time that they have the power to challenge the corrupt political elite.”