Fri Jan 20th, 2012 at 06:04:19 PM EST
The broad international coverage of the 2 January protest against the new constitution of Hungary (see Protest in a one-party state) did achieve one thing: a shocking realisation on the part of the Hungarian Right that they lost control of the streets.
In the eight years of the so-called 'center-left' in government, 2002-2010, right-populist Fidesz (which now governs with a two-thirds majority in parliament) and the multitude of far-right groups and grouplets (in always changing alliances) resorted to street politics, from blockades through mass rallies to riots, and 'won' on that front well before an election victory. But now they woke to the reality of CNN et al showing tens of thousands protesting in the streets while prime minister Viktor Orbán attended a closed-door celebration and then left through the back door.
Thus, right-wing circles were abuzz with calls for counter-protests, as a demonstration of force, a re-taking of the streets. The right-wing protests staged thus far were less than spectacular, but the expected bigger ones are still to come, the first this Saturday (21 January). The government has also tried to thwart anti-government protests in various ways. But the organisers of those weren't short of ideas, either – the title refers to their latest trick.
All the while, parliamentary opposition parties again don't shine: the Green party LMP is mired in internal conflict over cooperation with the successors of the previous government (resulting in high-profile resignations); while much-reviled former Socialist PM and present leader of a breakaway party, Ferenc Gyurcsány, had no better idea than to insist on the necessity of severe austerity measures and social 'reforms' after the overthrow of a Fidesz government. So, with the background of market attack, IMF talks and legal review by the European Commission, protests and counter-protests will now be the main game in town until at least the middle of March.
Let's first review the wave of pro-government protests – with a focus on the groups behind them, how they got "street cred", and what they are after now.
The first pro-government protest was a mysterious affair. On 10 January, there was a "spontaneous" gathering of a few dozen people (though they claimed a few hundred), almost all of them pensioners, at the Opera House, the place of the events of 2 January. There was no prior announcement, no speaker, just prayers and a placard saying "The nation sides with the government" (IOW the opposition are traitors). Media reported rumours that they came on the call of the mayor of Csepel (a district of the capital Budapest), who previously called on people to pray for prime minister Viktor Orbán so that God will help him against his enemies (seriously!). But if true, this was an uncoordinated initiative, and Fidesz had no interest in "owning" it after such a low turnout. So ECHO TV, a small pro-government cable channel established by industrialist Gábor Széles (for background see this comment) stepped forward to own it, declaring that these people came spontaneously for the filming of one of their shows...
On 14 January, another pensioner-dominated protest followed, this time 500-1,000 people in front of Parliament, organised by an NGO called Élőlánc ("Human chain"). In all 'post-communist' countries, citizen initiatives are weak, and can hardly avoid getting into (and under) party politics. This was the fate of Élőlánc, too, which originally formed against a planned NATO radar station atop a mountain in a natural reserve during the time of Socialist-led governments, but developed into a pro-Fidesz outfit. Their 14 January protest was ostensibly about protecting Hungary's sovereignty, in reality against all foreign criticism, with rhetorical excesses (actual example: "They want to exterminate Hungarians! But God won't allow it!").
The same day, elsewhere in Budapest, the far-right Jobbik party held a protest with the same motto, which made it into international news due to a burning of the European flag (cause for an on-going police investigation).
Jobbik, which entered parliament with a shocking 16.7% of votes in the 2010 elections, grew out of a students' association formed at the time of the first Orbán government (1998-2002). Measured in votes and opinion poll numbers, until about 2008, they were just another insignificant far-right micro-party. However, already back then, they had two more specialities (beyond youthfulness) which planted the seeds of their later success: internet-savvyness, and a focus on the exploitation and nurture of anti-Roma racism, which was (and is) much more widespread than the Hungarian far-right's traditional favourite anti-Semitism.
However, the key to Jobbik's success was their gaining of a street presence, by establishing a paramilitary: the so-called Hungarian Guard (see Hungary: Another Autumn of Discontent). The Guard and its successors (it was legally disbanded but members just continued under new names) held provocative marches, mainly in villages with Roma ghettos, and launched "help the people" actions like carrying sandbags and helping with evacuations during river floods. This gained them multiple times the voters all far-right parties combined had in previous elections, concentrated in two notable segments of society:
- youth, especially working-class (a recent poll saw them level with Fidesz at 15% of the youngest and much less present in all other age brackets);
- the rural area (impoverished villages with no jobs and fleeing youth, almost completely ignored by the Socialists and given no more than symbolic politics by Fidesz; Jobbik even has some majors).
In the present economic crisis, Jobbik tries to gather disgruntled Fidesz voters. Stealing from the international Left, their rhetorical focus is now against banks (of course, with nationalist and thinly veiled anti-Semitic overtones replacing anti-capitalist ones), accuse Orbán of submitting to them and the whole EU of acting as their agents. With this, Jobbik hovers around 10% of all adults in polls – about the same as at election time, but, at the present abysmally low intentions to vote, enough for 20+% of the vote. Due to Fidesz's lack of demarcation from the far-right, their potential is probably much higher, as indicated by approval numbers for party leader Gábor Vona in the 25% range.
However, in spite of all the above and a grand mobilisation attempt, in terms of turnout, Jobbik's flag-burning protest wasn't that much of a success: media reports speak of 2,000-2,500 people. Still, that many certified madmen, a third of them in jackboots, is a scary sight. In addition to burning the EU flag, Vona told that the streets have to be re-taken from the anti-government protesters who "aren't dignified" to take them, and threatened that Jobbik will be there at all of their protests(!).
Still on 14 January, there was another right-wing protest in Szeged, a city of 170,000 near the Serbian border which is one of the last bastions of the Socialists. This was the largest of a couple of protests organised by local groups of Fidesz, but it is really noteworthy for main speaker István Csurka, and the political calculation behind his role. Young Csurka was arrested after 1956, and was released after signing and agreement about becoming a secret service informer. Although he denies that he ever reported, his good secret service contacts and the fact that he became a playwright with full support from the regime indicate otherwise. In the early nineties, Csurka established what became Hungary's first main far-right party, MIÉP, on the basis of pre-1945 chauvinistic and anti-Semitic traditions.
Csurka's MIÉP also employed the prototype of street politics in Hungary: Csurka would hold ten-thousand-strong rallies every month or two; albeit elections showed that the turnout of his biggest rallies was more or less all his voters. MIÉP passed the 5% limit in 1998 thanks to the record low turnout. Fidesz's toleration of and collusion with the far-right started with their attempt to woo MIÉP delegates in commissions and boards to go along with their power grab; but it continued with an operation to steal MIÉP's voters, which was largely completed in the 2006 elections. However, by 2010, Csurka was more upset with Jobbik eclipsing him within the far right, and offered himself up as a figure who could attract some Jobbik voters back to Fidesz. With success: last year, the new Fidesz mayor of Budapest decided to give the leadership of a theater (from February 2012) to another far-right figure who would have officially employed Csurka as right-hand man. The mayor backtracked on the Csurka part later, but the protest in Szeged shows that Csurka is still integrating into Fidesz. But will he draw voters from Jobbik? The Szeged protest indicates otherwise: even the speakers noted the lack of young people in the 'crowd'.
Next will be a protest that is expected to be much bigger: a so-called "peace march" on Saturday (21 January), initiated by a dozen "civilians". The latter are led by Zsolt Bayer, Fidesz party member No. 5 in 1988, a decade and a half later one prominent member of a trio of far-right journalists who were key to Fidesz's above-mentioned capture of MIÉP voters. The co-initiators include another member of that trio, András Bencsik (see this comment on the trio), as well as industrialist Gábor Széles whom I mentioned upthread. (They also included some token celebrities, one of whom, a fitness champion, withdrew her name and told she was duped.)
Bayer has some past as initiator of smaller protests in the 2002-2010 period, but not a mass rally like the "peace march" is to be. Indeed there are reports that Fidesz doesn't want to appear as the organiser of a mass rally until the talks with the IMF are over, but started up some of its mobilising networks (on which more below) behind the scenes. In other words, the "peace march" will be an inofficial Fidesz march. The "peace march" concept is to give an impression of a silent majority for the international media, contrasting it with both the boos and jeers of the left-of-centre opposition and the flag-burning of Jobbik (a rather hypocritical act when channeled across the mouth of Bayer, considering the tone of his earlier protests, not to mention the hate speech in his writings). The optimists in the opposition also speculate that they fear turnout would be low; but even if so, this would be a clever move to test the waters with plausible deniability.
Reportedly, the final act in the right-wing attempt to re-take the streets will be an official Fidesz mass rally on 15 March, the day of the 1848 Revolution (and the most popular national holiday).
The Fidesz tradition of mass rallies started after they lost the first round of the 2002 elections. Fidesz narrowed the gap by winning most seats left to take in the second round with a furious voter mobilisation campaign. Part of the latter was a mass rally in front of parliament, shown live on state TV (they conquered it then, too), and infamously estimated at two million-strong (which was physically impossible and probably 20 times the actual number; for details see Campaign Watch Hungary: Counting Crowds). In the next eight years, Fidesz kept staging mass rallies on national holidays and ahead of elections, as a means of motivating supporters and impressing I-vote-for-the-winner voters.
High turnout in Fidesz mass rallies was achieved with methods known in the USA under "get out the vote" (GOTV), which is supposed to be illegal in Hungary (as it is in most of Europe), due to the use of extensive databases on supporters (as well as enemies) which allow for targeted campaigns. Now, even though Fidesz lost half of its supporters since the summer of 2010, it still can count on at least 1.2 million, so I would be very surprised if they can't pull off another 100,000-strong protest, maybe already on Saturday (21 January). And if not, at least a decent crowd which pro-government media can multiply by 20 again.
|Three years ago, Zsolt Bayer wrote an anti-Gypsy op-ed, leading to government calls for action against incitement of violence. Instead, Bayer's employer Gábor Széles orgnised a 'soldarity protest'. On the photo from the blog The voice of Gypsies, Bayer is on the right, below him is Fidesz's token Roma leader (who would reassure the crowd that "honest" Roma didn't feel insulted), while the crowd behind shouts slogans including "death to Gypsies!"|
The Fidesz campaign to re-take the streets doesn't just involve pro-government protests, but attempts to thwart the opposition, too. On one hand, the new labour law is used to kick protest-organising union leaders from their jobs: two weeks ago I reported how they got the boss of the fire-fighters' union; now they also went after the head of the police union and want to fire him in the framework of disciplinary measures. On the other hand, to block a Facebook group for media freedom who organised the two biggest anti-government rallies last year on the days of the 1848 and 1956 Revolutions (without Le Monde taking notice), the government and the city council of Budapest reserved all of the broad areas traditionally used for mass rallies – and that for a whole week around 15 March, and for two years in advance!
|Red: areas reserved by the national government, blue: areas reserved by the city government of Budapest. Map from NOL.hu.|
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What does the opposition have in store over the same period? The main NGOs behind the 2 January event endorse these protests:
- Also in the late afternoon on Saturday (21 January), a new Facebook group organised a protest against the President of the Republic(sic!) who is The zu Googleberg of Hungary but so far refuses to resign. The motto is an untranslatable wordplay on 'graduation ceremony' and 'stripping of doctoral degree'.
- On Sunday (22 January), there will be a protest in support of the last opposition FM radio which lost its before-last frequency (the one covering the Budapest area) in a rigged frequency re-tendering (call-in shows in the program plan were penalised and music rewarded). I don't listen to that radio station, because it is too beholden to the austerity received wisdom of the previous government and too naive about the intentions of Western powers; however, its political stance is not the issue here, media freedom is.
- On 1 February, there will be a protest at the theatre given by Budapest's mayor to far-right figures (see section on István Csurka).
- The umbrella group for the unions, Szolidaritás (Solidarity), will bypass the government occupation of public spaces around 15 March by staging its next big event on 10 March.
- The media freedom Facebook group commonly known as Milla (short for One Million For Press Freedom) is still intent to beat out an approval for a suitable site on 15 March, via the courts if necessary (a protest ban near parliament issued by the Socialist government five years ago was just ruled illegal by Strasbourg). And they already made a laughing stock out of the government's multiple-year site reservation: they submitted a similar declaration to police which reserved one street for both 15 March and 23 October one hundred years in advance:
I will attend and report as many of the above opposition protests as possible.