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 iek 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.