Disquiet on the Danube: Hungarians Take to the Streets
Tens of thousands of people flooded the streets of Budapest last week to attend a peaceful rally sponsored by Fidesz, Hungary's main opposition party. The rally was a commemoration of the 51st anniversary of Hungary's revolution against the Soviet government. It was one of several displays of dissatisfaction with the current ruling government: several smaller unsanctioned protests disrupted traffic and activities on the streets of Budapest throughout the week.
On the night before the rally, the 22nd, there was a clash between the police and several protesters affiliated with the far-right. The protests closed down Andr√°ssy Avenue and resulted in 19 injuries. The violence echoed the Fidesz rally from one year ago when protesters and police clashed. Shortly after the 2006 rally ended, a group forcefully resisted police attempts to disperse the crowd. Those who resisted started shouting anti-government slogans and barricaded themselves up against a major exit route. The tension escalated before the protesters were isolated. As a result, many rally attendees and bystanders were assailed with tear gas and rubber bullets. A riot ensued.
With last year's ominous events in mind, both the city and the rally organizers went to great lengths to discourage any violence this year. There was a highly visible police and security presence at the assembly.
The rally attracted approximately 30,000 people according to the police, and it concluded peacefully. Yet despite that, Hungary's continued political tension was still clearly evident. The demonstrators had demanded the resignation of the Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurscany, a call that the opposition has been making since late 2006. The demands first came about after a recording of the Prime Minister in a closed-door meeting was leaked to the media. On the tape Gyurscany admitted that he lied about the state of Hungary's economy in order to win the 2006 elections. Since the leak of that tape, opposition Fidesz has enjoyed increased popularity. In contrast, Gyurscany's Socialist-led coalition government has failed to gain back any of the support it lost after last year's scandal.
Last year's violence, which was a reaction to the scandal, was alluded to during this year's rally by Victor Orban, the head of Fidesz. In his speech Orban said, "Violence is beneath us and only results in more violence." He went on to say that the current government was keeping Hungary tied to the Russians while preventing Hungary from enjoying the prosperity of the West. Hungary does enjoy a close trade relationship with Russia, and over the last year Hungary's government has instated several austerity measures in an effort to rein in Hungary's huge deficit.
Unfortunately the austerity measures bit just as last year's scandal erupted. Among the least popular measures are a cut in public health care benefits and new tuition fees for university students. At least one Fidesz supporter at the rally saw a link between the austerity measures and the election scandal. "He lies about the economy, and then he steals from the people and tells us he does it for the economy. Why should we believe anything this man says?"
While the opposition has clearly gained strength over the past year, there are many Hungarians expressing frustration with the tactics Fidesz has employed. This frustration was especially clear in the days and hours leading up to the anniversary of the Revolution of 1956. On the morning of the rally, in a cafe near where the stage was being assembled, one student said, "They are using this holiday for their politics, but today shouldn't be political."
Not everyone's complaints are focused on politics. Many are concerned about the impression such events make on people beyond Hungary's borders. The manager of a hotel close to where the Fidesz rally was held said, "This is a mess. The violence [from the night of the 22nd] is not going to help anyone, and it makes Hungary look dangerous." A Fidesz supporter talking about a group of tourists arriving two days after the rally said, "It's a good thing they didn't get here Tuesday. They'd go right back home."
There was more action on the streets to keep people nervous. On Friday, a protest unaffiliated with any one political party accompanied a taxi strike in opposition to a 65% increase in gas prices. Together the protests blocked major routes through Budapest and the police came out in a show of force. It took several hours to get traffic back to normal.
The peaceful outcome from last week's rally is encouraging, as is the relatively efficient handling of the taxi driver's protest. The Budapest police needed to prove themselves competent after last year's debacle.
The rally did, however, serve as a reminder that political tensions in Hungary remain very high. The ruling government could not win an election today, but it cannot change its unpopular policies either. Hungary cannot alter its economic policy without risking its standing as a new EU member state. Nor can Hungary afford to cut trade relations with Russia because of the nation's overwhelming dependence on Russian oil. This is quandary the ruling party has found itself in, and more and more often the Hungarian population is taking to the streets to call for change.
Hogan Hayes lives in Budapest, Hungary, working as a writer and a composition/rhetoric instructor at Central European University. He was raised in and around Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He studied philosophy at the University of Wisconsin and received an MA in English from the University of California, Davis.