Viktor Orbán, the firebrand Hungarian youth leader who helped negotiate free elections in 1989 after 40 years of communism, spent the last two months taking politics back into the streets. It may have been his last tilt at power.
Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, with public protests against him ebbing and a victory in last month's parliamentary confidence vote, seems increasingly likely to survive the furor ignited when he admitted that he had lied about the state of the economy. That leaves Orbán, the 43-year-old leader of the Fidesz party, “in a bit of a hole,” said Aidan Manktelow, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. “Once this dies down, there could be a leadership challenge.” In the 1980s, Orbán became a symbol of Hungarian democracy by stirring a crowd of more than 100,000 with demands for the departure of Soviet troops. Seventeen years, one prime- ministerial term and two lost elections later, he and his party turned back to street protests, this time against an elected government. When those failed to unseat the government, on October 23 he called for a referendum, now planned for February or March, on the government's plans to reduce spending on social programs, including imposing fees for doctor visits. “The referendum doesn't solve Orbán's situation,” said Bernadett Budai, a political analyst at Vision Consulting in Budapest. “A failure would further weaken his standing within his own party because he has got himself stuck in a dead end.” Orbán has played on the often acrimonious divide in Hungarian society between Fidesz supporters and those who back the Socialists, the party that emerged from the communist regime, according to Tim Haughton, a senior lecturer in East European politics at the University of Birmingham in England. “The question will be to see how long these demonstrations last and to see exactly what happens in Fidesz,” Haughton said by telephone. “Raising stakes is a risky game. Orbán can win big-time, but he can also lose big-time.” In April, Gyurcsány, and his government became the first since communism collapsed to win re-election. Hungary also bucked an electoral trend that threw out governments across eastern Europe after the European Union expanded. Two months after the election, Gyurcsány cut subsidies and imposed higher taxes to slash Hungary's budget deficit, the widest in the EU. His popularity already trailed Orbán's when a tape recording surfaced in September in which he admitted lying about the state of the economy to win re-election.
Anti-government protests turned violent on September 18, the day after the tape's release, with rioters invading the national television headquarters and burning cars. They clashed with police for three nights, marking the worst violence since Hungary's failed anti-Soviet revolt in 1956, and the admission helped Fidesz win a municipal election on October 1. On October 23, the 50th anniversary of the start of the uprising, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds. At a rally that day, Orbán addressed supporters as rioters drove a tank at police a few blocks away. Orbán and Fidesz have condemned the rioters while continuing to criticize the government. “While street protests are the part of all democracies, the failure to denounce the far right is risky,” said Attila Juhász, an analyst at Political Capital in Budapest. “It's not that Orbán took politics to the street, it's who he went out there with. This can indeed be a dangerous precedent.” There are signs protests are petering out. On November 4, the 50th anniversary of the day Soviet troops entered Hungary to crush the revolt, Fidesz organized a torchlight march through Budapest. György Szilvásy, who oversees the secret services in the prime minister's office, warned that some far-right groups might cause trouble. Instead, the event passed peacefully, attended by a crowd estimated in the local media at 50,000. That was a smaller turnout than either organizers or the police had expected, and the march passed without anti-government protests or clashes with police. Orbán says the majority of Hungarians are still on his side. “Gyurcsány must go, he can't hold the entire country hostage,” Orbán, who declined to be interviewed, said on his Web site. Gyurcsány says the protests aren't so much aimed at him as they are a reflection of a continuing struggle between the “Christian middle class'' and the “progressive reform intelligentsia.” In a meeting with reporters in his study, he said that “there has been no dialogue since 1998” between the antagonists in that struggle. “Both parties are guilty of painting each other in very extremist terms, and that's dangerous,” Ilona Teleki, a deputy director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in a telephone interview. “It's an intense period; it's snowballed into a giant mess.” (Bloomberg)