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Another day of protests in Budapest

by DoDo Wed Oct 24th, 2012 at 04:03:53 AM EST

TodayYesterday (23 October) is the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1956 Revolution in Hungary. This year, it was the occasion for political demonstrations – a déjà vu-inducing re-run of what happened on 15 March (the day of Hungary's most revered 1848 Revolution). That is: there was again a large civil sphere-organised protest and several barely-attended protests of the democratic opposition parties against the right-populist government of Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party, there was an even more massive pro-government rally (mobilising mostly old and rural supporters to keep the faith), an event by far-right party Jobbik with racist and faux-revolutionary overtones, and a provocative counter-protest on the edge of the opposition mass rally by the right-of-Jobbik fascists.

It wasn't all déjà vu, though. The main theme of the main opposition rally (which I attended, photo above) was cooperation between opposition forces, correcting the divisions of the spring which wasn't looked at kindly by own supporters. As foreshadowed by car05, from a leftist viewpoint, this cooperation is ominous: it includes the 'NGO' (in practice: think-tank) of previous PM Gordon Bajnai, a non-partisan yuppie from the finance industry who was tasked in 2009-10 with an IMF-inspired austerity programme. The protest was the first occasion for Bajnai to hold a public speech since handing power to his successor Orbán, a speech widely seen as the start of his campaign for being a united opposition candidate in the 2014 elections. Still, at least the clearly most crowd-firing speech was held by a hard-leftist.

A short recap of what this is all about: following the sinking of Socialist-led governments in a sea of corruption scandals, austerity measures and ineptness in the face of right-wing and far-right attacks, right-populist Fidesz won a qualified majority in parliament in 2010, which it promptly began to use to shape the state in its own image. Several institutional changes and a new constitution without referendum were meant to secure power positions well beyond the next election cycle, and some measures raised the ire of the EU Commission. This was paralleled by a restoration of the nationalist-conservative imagery, language and social image of the semi-fascist and pro-clerical regime between WWI and WWII, a large-scale robbery for the regime's own oligarchs via the state, a toleration of rampant far-right activism, and ultra-liberal economic and social 'reforms' masked by a language of defiance against the IMF and the EU.

Since the wave of anti-government and anti-anti-government protests this spring, the perhaps most important stories were:

  • official recession kicked in (though it is still less than 2% year-on-year);
  • the robbery for the oligarchs started in earnest (see photo below, I think you can guess the translation for the placard), including the distribution of agricultural lands;
  • the government unsuccessfully tried to woo several undemocratic Asian or Caucasian governments to help Hungary financially, a campaign that apparently included such genius realpolitik as the handover to Azerbaijan of a murderer convicted of the axe-murder of an Armenian student in his sleep (the convict was set free upon arrival at home and was given a hero's welcome);
  • in addition to grabbing control of the formerly non-partisan Electoral Commission, re-writing election law and gerrymandering election districts, Fidesz is introducing voter registration as an obvious voter suppression measure (previously, the list of voters was derived from public records, a system that worked for 22 years without problems).

With the above basis, here is an anecdotal summary of what I saw today.

On the train to Budapest, the slim majority of passengers seemed to be flag-waving attendants of the pro-government protest, 95% of them above 50 and maybe 75% above 60. But next to me, five very polite 16-17-year old sat down, four boys and a girl, clearly led by the latter, and quickly revealed as Jobbik supporters. At one point, the girl chided one of the boys for not wearing distinctive clothes, telling him: "You want to integrate into Jewish culture?" Insane, and outrageous how open they are about it; at the same time, the faltering enthusiasm on the boys' part is a new thing to me. Then shortly after, there came a display of cognitive dissonance: the girl started to talk about how funny the latest episode of Family Guy was – integrated into cosmopolitan 'Jewish' culture, she was...

On my way to the opposition protest, I saw the gathering Jobbik supporters and then crossed the main shopping street of Pest (the eastern half of Budapest), which was filled with Western tourists as always, oblivious to the political mess surrounding them on three sides.

At the opposition protest, there were three groups of three speakers each.

The first three (a pair of feminists, the editor of a Hungarian-language news website from Transylvania [where the Orbán government intervenes heavily and heavy-handedly into local politics, so much so that their local stooges lost popular support], and a half-Roma social activist) were the worst I listened to in all the protests this year: too loud, or never stopping to let the crowd cheer and boo, or waaaay too long-winded, or veering off-topic. At the end of it there was audible dissatisfaction all around. The organisers should really give coaching to speakers the next time.

The next three speakers were more adept at holding speeches, especially the last: a hard-leftist philosopher named Tamás Gáspár Miklós in the Hungarian order of names (surname first) and commonly referred to by his initials TGM, who is like the Slavoj Žižek of Hungary. He spoke the strongest words about resurgent poverty, also turning it into a new angle of attack against the government's nostalgia for the regime between WWI and WWII: he told he doesn't want to get back to the "Hungary of three million beggars". TGM was also the only one to make the argument against the government I wished to hear: they are conducting an IMF programme without the IMF (and then pose as freedom fighters in front of their supporters).

The last three speakers were the leaders of the three main civil sphere organisations that managed to forge an alliance this time: Milla, a Facebook group that proved the most successful protest organiser in the last two years; Szolidaritás (Solidarity), an umbrella group of unions; and Haza és Haladás (Homeland and Progress), the aforementioned think-tankNGO of former PM Gordon Bajnai.

Bajnai spoke last, and he got the most applause upon starting his speech. It was a classic opposition political speech, giving a bone to everyone but without being too specific when speaking of the future. Still, the neoliberal shone through: there was talk of the responsibility of not just the have-mores to care for the poor but the poor to find a job, there was talk of unavoidable international competition, and there was talk of undefined unfinished reforms. I don't think most listeners fully understood these code words.

This time, police did more to separate the crowds of different protests.

At the beginning, I was far away from the far-far-right counter-protesters, only saw their flags, but those disappeared after half an hour. When I got near their place at the end of the protest, they were nowhere, and police apparently used two trucks to block them off before. Meanwhile, the Jobbik crowd was marching along a street perpendicular to the one our protest filled, so police didn't allow us to leave that way.

In the subway, we were directed to the last cars of the six-car metro trains, while the pro-government mass rally attendants presumably boarded the cars ahead of us at the next two stations. The two sides got to glance at each other on the escalators, though, but it was unusually peaceful, maybe due to the high average age of the other side.

On the train home, again about half the passengers seemed to be pro-government protesters with their flags and grey hair. They didn't seem satisfied. I overheard one saying that the square before parliament wasn't half full, and an old lady complained about being expected to stand around for hours. But, I was pleased to hear that the group of typical peasants nearest to me were praising TGM as the best speaker – so they came from the Milla protest, too.

Where this will lead, I don't know. As usual, I am not too optimistic, but it is worth to bear in mind that political upheavals on a scale of 1-2 years or even months happen regularly in this region. So I would neither close out the formation and victory of a united democratic opposition front, nor the victory of a new neolib-tainted or leftist party, nor the victory of a resurgent Socialist Party, nor a victory of Jobbik in a rapid recession, nor another punch-out Fidesz victory with a large majority (and not just the gerrymandered election system) behind it.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Oct 23rd, 2012 at 03:36:18 PM EST
I went along myself, but didn't hang around beyond the initial speeches which, as you say, were quite badly delivered and lacking in content. The turnout was pretty good, with fantastic weather for late October... I also walked past the Jobbik rally, which seemed to have a higher proportion of young people than both the government and the Milla demonstrations. Though there were quite a few people at all of these, I suspect the vast majority of the city was intent on lapping up the last of the autumn sun, at the end of the four-day weekend.

Bajnai's vision appears very minimalistic, as one would expect. You're absolutely right - much of the detail lurks around the edges. Yet what strikes me is that very little of the Bajnai-Gyurcsány axis is based on an indigenous growth strategy, the idea that somehow Hungary's resources, human and material, can be somehow utilised in some new or clever way. Whilst we haven't seen his full programme, so far it seems very conventional MOR neoliberal stuff. This in itself seems very risky, given the unstable nature of various externalities. I wonder where the domestic and cultural elements are, in this form of politics?

by car05 on Tue Oct 23rd, 2012 at 05:24:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
what strikes me is that very little of the Bajnai-Gyurcsány axis is based on an indigenous growth strategy

At least in Bajnai's speech, I couldn't recognise an economic program (unless his mentioning of Poland and Slovakia as countries in the region passing us by economically counts as an indication of one). At any rate, what Bajnai says matters little as long as the two biggest parties in his desired unified democratic opposition power basis, that is both the Socialists (MSzP) and the Greens (LMP) want to contest the 2014 elections on their own (which as things stand would guarantee them opposition status). Then again, I didn't get the impression that either of them seriously considered a new path, and truly realised that the post-1990 recipe of attracting foreign capital by aspiring to be the best pupils of the IMF isn't working. (In fact I was dismayed to hear Szolidaritás leader Péter Kónya mention foreign capital as a basis for the development of the Hungarian economy undercut by Orbán, but not mentioning the flat tax.)

An issue related to indigenous growth did feature in several speeches, though: the brain drain of educated young people, which is on-going in spite of the government's new laws aimed at tying down students in Hungary. (An anecdotal evidence is that the other day I overheard the discussion of a conductor and a passenger, both mothers, about their wish for their children to escape the malaise with the help of their language skills, even if it will be even worse for those who stay behind.) So people are at least aware of the 'human capital' part.

I also walked past the Jobbik rally, which seemed to have a higher proportion of young people than both the government and the Milla demonstrations.

No surprise there, it started as a youth party and still predominantly poisons young minds (which only makes their still double-digits figures in polls even more scary, even if their numbers significantly reduced since the summer according to multiple polls). Perhaps the one difference in protester demographics was the wider class and settlement type coverage of the Milla protest, that is more working-class and more rural faces (presumably due to the joint organisation with Szolidaritás).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Oct 24th, 2012 at 04:16:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I added some details: the Family Guy episode, the three million beggars, and the dissatisfaction among the pro-government protesters on the train home.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Oct 24th, 2012 at 03:23:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
From reports, it appears that the most notable event of the pro-government mass rally (again organised by the group of pro-Fidesz far-right journalists under the Orwellian name "Peace March") was when Orbán welcomed a 100-year-old woman on stage whose Slovakian citizenship was revoked when he took up the Hungarian one. The backstory is that, in another move designed to get more voters for Fidesz, parliament adopted a new citizenship law in 2010 which allows ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring countries to request citizenship. Slovakia's parliament retaliated by changing their citizenship law too, adding the automatic revocation of Slovakian citizenship upon the adoption of another citizenship that wasn't declared beforehand. The issue, of course, has nothing to do with 1956; and Orbán again cynically uses the results of a mess he himself created to stoke even more nationalist hate.

News reports in non-government-aligned media also confirm that turnout at yesterday's event was smaller than the other two pro-government mass rallies earlier this year. Yet, the numbers game is alive and well: police first issued an estimate of 150,000, then corrected it to match their estimate of the first pro-government rally at 400,000, a number that was unreal already back then.

At the Jobbik rally, reportedly attended by 3,000, the Jobbik leader sought to separate themselves from members of "the 1989 political elite" (that includes Fidesz leaders), and count himself into the "2006 generation", even though Jobbik had little to do with the 2006 events (the far-right street riots in the wake of the leaking of an internal speech by then PM Ferenc Gyurcsány in which he said "I lied").

Police proudly announced the detainment of one man at the Jobbik rally for anti-Semitic incitement of hatred. Which is no more than an excuse: On one hand, speeches at the Jobbik rally were full of allusions to anti-Semitic lore (including a recent one that interprets a quip by Israeli President Shimon Peres as an Israeli strategy to take over Hungary by buying up land). On the other hand, anti-Semitic incitement of hatred would have been a reason for police to detain the entire counter-protest of the right-of-Jobbik fascists on the sidelines of the Milla protest (which reportedly included a Jobbik MP, though), judging from a video by a reporter of web news site Index.hu (who was surrounded, tossed around and punched in the eye at the end): chants included "Die, Jews! and "We take you camping in Auschwitz".

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Oct 24th, 2012 at 05:23:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
We may soon have a similar government here in Tokyo, unfortunately.

I will become a patissier, God willing.
by tuasfait on Wed Oct 24th, 2012 at 08:02:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I wouldn't be surprised, from what I hear ...

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind...Albert Einstein
by vbo on Wed Oct 24th, 2012 at 11:21:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Tell us more!

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Oct 24th, 2012 at 01:38:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What a mess...pretty scary...

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind...Albert Einstein
by vbo on Wed Oct 24th, 2012 at 11:20:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There is some sections of the anti-troika right here, that portray Orban as the man who stood up to IMF/EU imposed austerity and chose taxing bankers, over cutting services. I know that Hungary is keeping a high tax on banks and taxing financial transactions but is this in some way hype, or is there some truth behind the anti-IMF story?...

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom - William Blake
by talos (mihalis at gmail dot com) on Fri Oct 26th, 2012 at 05:47:11 AM EST
Standing up to the IMF and the EU does indeed feature strongly in the Orbán government's rhetoric, and the bank tax is true, in fact it wasn't the only special tax. However, neither is what it seems.

The special taxes are worthless in combination with their other policies, above all the flat tax which emptied state coffers more than the special taxes could compensate. Another example is what the Orbán government did with private pension schemes. In the USA, the financial industry used the money of pension funds to play casino in both the dotcom and mortgage bubbles, by fooling their conservative investors with elaborate schemes to make worthless investment appear safe investment. In the Orbán government's version, it's the private pension funds that stood accused of playing casino, and the nationalisation didn't result in the safe-keeping of their accumulated funds for the public's long-term benefit, but the spending of it all to plug the deficit in a single year. (I believe this government would also be stupid enough about finance to deliver a perfect example for neolibs in support of their claims about the ills of a central bank not independent from the government.)

And thus came the begging round at the doors of Asian and Caucasian dictatorships, and the austerity programmes which please should not be called austerity programmes, even if by now the poor are punished even more than in any prior austerity programme, and public servants got back to a 40-hour work week with the same salary. Also note that they put the debt brake into their new constitution. That's what's behind the phrase "an IMF programme without the IMF" which I used in the diary.

On the other hand, the Orbán government's contradictory relationship with the IMF may be a rational strategy – one meant to discourage market attacks. I detailed this hypothesis of mine here.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Oct 26th, 2012 at 12:10:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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