Demos: Unhappy campers lack leadership


The following article is from the January 16-29 print edition of the BBJ:

The past few months have seen a host of demonstrations, bringing thousands onto the street to protest the policies of Hungary’s governing Fidesz party. For organizers, the strength of these demonstrations has been their lack of endorsement by a single opposition party, an indication that these are apolitical and spontaneous outpourings of discontent. But analysts say the lack of political connections is also a weakness: Without leadership, analysts say, the protests are not likely to lead to dramatic change.

Regardless of what the analysts say, the demonstrations will apparently continue, with the next big one set for February 1. Already 11,000 people have signed on as “going” on a Facebook page announcing the event.

The first of the recent series of demonstrations took place on the evening of October 26, when an estimated 40,000 people marched down Andrássy to protest plans to levy a tax on internet traffic. Two days later, a second demonstration drew an estimated 100,000, and shortly afterwards the government, obviously surprised by the turn of events, shelved the plans for the new tax.

Intoxicated by the success of these first demonstrations, general protests by different organizers against the current political elite started flourishing, bringing thousands of disappointed Hungarians to the streets. The question political analysts ask is how effective these protests can be if they remain apolitical. “There is a huge tension between the protesters and the organizers of the demonstrations,” political analyst Zoltán Somogyi told the Budapest Business Journal, explaining that organizers are wary of opposition parties but demonstrators seem to want a viable opposition. “While the organizers keep saying that they are fed up with the whole political elite of the past 25 years in Hungary, the protesters are clearly fed up with the reign of [Prime Minister Viktor] Orbán, and are eager to see a competent opposition”.

According to Attila Juhász, chief analyst at the Political Capital Institute, “The demonstrations in Hungary are diverse, and although the organizers keep disassociating themselves from parties, the communities demonstrating consist of supporters of opposition parties.” Juhász believes, “The smaller demonstrations following the first internet tax demonstrations portray a general disappointment of Hungarian citizens regarding the government.”

Government: Not in the interest of the country

The government claims that the lack of a clear opposition indicates that these demonstrations are fruitless, and could potentially cause a problem. “The protests that have been going on since October 2014 are neither about the government, nor about the governance: They are about the internal struggles of the frustrated leftist opposition trying to take a new form,” the International Communications Office of the Prime Minister’s Office said on January 12, in response to questions from the BBJ. “Under the present geopolitical circumstances it cannot be in the interests of the country to allow political forces that are not willing to accept the results of democratic elections and that are still looking for solutions to their internal division to weaken the country.”

MP Antal Rogán has even gone so far as to suggest that there should be an investigation into the demonstrations, to make sure that they are not supported by forces that are seeking to harm the country. He said on HírTV on January 10 that such an investigation could take place as part of an “action plan for the defense of the country”, which incorporates various elements, including anti-terrorism measures and measures to defend the sovereignty of the Hungarian economy.

But, for now, the marches can go on. In December, Fidesz MP Gergely Gulyás suggested in an interview with Hungarian daily Népszabadság, that, in his opinion, the laws and regulations on freedom of public assembly needed to be changed. This sparked plans for another demonstration, but on January 7, a few days before that protest took place, László L. Simon, state secretary at the Prime Minister’s Office, said the Hungarian government has no intention of amending the law on freedom of public assembly, and would not seek new restrictions on public gatherings.

Indeed, in its January 12 response to the BBJ, the International Communications Office of the Prime Minister’s Office said that the fact that the demonstrations have been allowed is an indication of Hungary’s strong democracy.

“The protests of the last months reinforce the evidence for the fact that Hungary is a state of the rule of law, where everyone – civil organizations, parties, popular movements – has the inalienable right to protest and express their views; within the confines of respective laws no one can question these rights,” the office said. “The government is open to dialogue; it does hear and listen to the voices of the people, which is why we have initiated a national consultation on the use of the internet.” That consultation is supposed to take place some time this year, and is likely to spark more of the controversy that began the first demonstrations.

More protests on the way

While the analysts disagreed with the government’s assessment, maintaining that demonstrators truly want change, they also said that, under current conditions, protesters will be hard put to bring about change. Although according to Juhász “it is sure that the opposition parties have lost credibility for the majority of Hungarians”, as long as these so-called “civil” demonstrations stay “apolitical” they will not be efficient. “If the movements that are openly against politics want to take effect, they will need to become political, which could hurt their attractiveness and their support would decline,” he says, so the way forward is not clear.

Meanwhile, organizers are planning still more demonstrations. Two different groups that have been behind past protests are planning to unite for a mass demonstration on February 1, the day before German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to visit Hungary. “We are calling the citizens of Hungary onto the streets to send a clear sign: we do not agree with nor want to stand for the autocratic rule of Mr. Orbán and the Fidesz party. Since Mr. Orbán came to power in 2010 both the democratic and economic indicators of our nation are deteriorating,” an announcement for the demonstration said. 

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