Fri Mar 16th, 2012 at 02:28:07 AM EST
As foretold in the diary One hundred years of protests, in the past month and a half Hungary saw several protests by the democratic opposition, supporters of the right-populist government, and the far-right; all in preparation for a final showdown of street politics today. Today, that is on 15 March, the day of the 1848 Revolution (which is the most fondly remembered in Hungary).
The event of the democratic opposition was the one organised by the Facebook group "One Million For Press Freedom", or Milla for short. Most of this diary will be my photo report of this event, held in the centre of Budapest on the central avenue where it leads up onto a bridge over the Danube.
As told in One hundred years of protests, the government tried to prevent this protest by reserving all areas suitable for mass rallies for one week around 15 March, and that for three successive years (until the next election), and Milla fought back every way it could, including an official declaration to police about holding protests every year for the next hundred years. Milla prevailed in the end, but this battle was fought until a week before the event, and included a raid by the tax authority and a questioning of Milla leaders about all sort of things unrelated to taxes. (Another dirty trick will be mentioned towards the end.)
In the same time, unfortunately, the democratic opposition was a mess.
- LMP (the local greens) first killed an NGO-initiated attempt at a cooperation of opposition parties, then had a short leadership crisis, then angered the student movement, only then came a decent idea in the form of a referendum initiative over social issues (though that triggered counter-propaganda from pro-opposition neolibs).
- DK, the new party of former Socialist former PM Ferenc Gyurcsány, thought it can gain credibility by calling for austerity measures while in opposition... but then made the tactical decision to support LMP's initiative.
- Szolidaritás, the umbrella group for the union-based wing of the NGO opposition movement, engaged in internal battles and angered Milla by going it alone in staging a separate protest on 10 March. Milla in turn was too openly piqued about this.
- After Hungary's figurehead President of the Republic was exposed as a plagiarist (he still didn't lose his doctoral title or job!), Milla launched an on-line competition in which anyone could apply for the job of "Alternative President of the Republic" with a video. This was meant seriously and was thus an extremely naive idea, and the predictable victory of a gangsta rapper with a joke platform was not what they wanted (but perfect for the government propagandists).
Also on 15 March and at the same hour, at Parliament (1.5 kilometres from the Milla protest), government party Fidesz held another mass rally. They chose to repeat the format of the last one, that is, the crowds were officially following an NGO but in truth Fidesz's GOTV networks were activated, with lots of undisclosed funding, and foreign 'guests' (including a large delegation from Poland). The difference is that this time, PM Viktor Orbán will address the crowd, so presumably even more of his fans turned out. About 1 km away from the Milla protest but in another direction, Hungary's present main far-right party Jobbik held its rally.
On the train and getting off, I again saw droves of pensioners with flags en route to the Fidesz mass rally, this time they also brought some grandchildren (see the comments in One hundred years of protests for the pensioner phenomenon at their previous events).
At the Milla event, I arrived around half an hour early. People arrived in droves here, too, walking in perfect sunny weather (first day of temperatures just under 20°C) with birds in the sunny sky.
LMP was again out gathering signatures for its referendum initiative.
Flags – not being Eurosceptic like Fidesz in its doublespeak and the far-right in its not-at-all-doublespeak is a main theme here.
I could walk up to the stage, which was actually on the bridge, with Gellért mountain in the back.
A Milla organiser speaks, next to him the sign language interpreter for the deaf.
The gangsta rapper elected Alternative President of the Republic was next. This time he went serious and held a fiery speech, although he stayed true to himself in including some expletives. (He is actually a long-time supporter of the opposition, but in his previous contributions expletives and jokes took the prime.)
By this time the main road was pretty much filled up, even way beyond the loudspeaker hung from a crane for people further away. (I tried to estimate the crowd by dividing it into 50-by-50-people blocks and arrived at at least 25,000.) You also see that Milla and Szolidaritás can at least contain conflict enough to attend each others' events.
After some other speakers, a young woman from a Roma NGO spoke, denouncing the across-the-board government policy of social contempt.
She spoke in loud voices so that people in the back hear it, too.
Then came the new student movement that sprung to life when the government let loose a Catholic zealot state secretary on education, with her reforms including a re-introduction of tuition fees (under a different name) and radically reduced access to education.
The Sun was getting lower in the sky, shining right into our eyes, but just perfect for photography.
Several other speakers for NGOs followed, including a homeless man, but I got the best shot of the representatives of new teachers' groups.
Also in One hundred years of protests, I mentioned that for whatever reason Budapest's Fidesz major gave the leadership of a theatre to a Jobbik-close man (overruling the expert group and ignoring the mistakes and open political agenda in the application). Most actors were cowards fearing for their jobs and only two of the more well-known left, one of them recited a poem towards the end. Behind him, in the red shirt, the LGBT representative; and the bearded guy to the right with the giant cockade, one of the public TV journalists who launched a hunger strike against the doctoring of news but was fired.
Milla said in January that opposing Fidesz is not enough and standing for something is needed, too, and set out to draft a "national minimum" which they would want all opposition parties to sign off. (On this front Milla and Szolidaritás go their separate ways, too: at the 10 March protest, Szolidaritás presented their recommendations for a new Constitution. Predictably, Szolidaritás's sets of demands are more social while Milla's are more liberal.) Milla's points were presented by an Arab Hungarian.
The crowd then began to dissolve.
Ever since the similarly big 2 January protest (see Protest in a one-party state), the far-right tried to spoil protests of the democratic opposition with counter-protests, and the government apparently let them. (They had most success at the 1 February protest against that theatre director, where democratic opposition turnout was low.)
This time a group right of Jobbik (which includes actual neo-Nazis) got permission for a protest just next to ours on short notice (while Milla had to battle for over a month), even though they were explicit about looking for trouble. Milla reacted by moving its stage further up the bridge than originally planned, but our crowd still filled the street where the c. one thousand neo-Nazis were in the side street. This time though police at least did what it failed to do on 2 January and 1 February and totally cordoned off the idiots. But they did nothing (though they would have the legal basis) about chants like "Filthy Jews!" (which they chanted when I passed).
(BTW the flag right and below the clock is a Polish flag; I have another blurred photo onn which it can be seen well – so it wasn't just Fidesz who got support from there.)
Lack of tussles is one thing, but what the neo-Nazis themselves and the government who gave them the approval obviously wanted was to scare Milla supporters away. Even though turnout was great, I know of people who were scared away.
In the grater scheme of things, this event of grouplets separate from Jobbik has another significance: Jobbik is losing control of the far-right grass-roots. The veterans of the riots of 2006-2007 (as well as their new recruits and fans) want action, they are fed up with Jobbik's parliamentary posturing and the paramilitaries organised by Jobbbik are too tame for them. This could result in a decline of Jobbik, but it also means (already means) a further radicalisation.
On the way home, I again shared a train with old and under-age flag-wavers returning from the Fidesz protest. However, both on my way there and the way back, I was surprised to see that there are still a lot of people on the streets who care about neither any of the protest or even the national holiday (as indicated by the lack of the traditional cockade), mainly party youth and older working-class people.
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As before, I wrote my eyewitness account after returning home and before checking the news; I will write about the other protests and about media observations of my protest later in the comments. Still later I may also post some photos of the 10 March and 1 February protests.