Most analysts agree that Viktor Orbán made a terrible political mistake when he consented to the idea of taxing Internet usage. Yet for the time being it looks as if the government will not take the proposal off the table. Observers are pretty well convinced that if the government had retreated at the first sign of serious opposition, the opportunity wouldn’t have arisen to forge a wide coalition of forces that by now can be viewed as a serious political opposition not only to the Internet tax but to the whole regime.
Perhaps one of the best descriptions of the feeling after yesterday’s enormous demonstration came from András Jámbor, a blogger and a participant in the demonstration, who said: “The Orbán regime did not fall last night and it is possible that it won’t for some time, but something very important happened yesterday: we conquered the cynicism and apathy around us, and the feeling that ‘it can’t be otherwise.’ We stood up for our own affairs…. Yesterday we won.” I think these words should be taken seriously.
I’d bet that this young man, after yesterday’s demonstration, felt something like the students did in October 1956 after they returned home from Kossuth tér–a distinct sense that from here on nothing will be the same. Even if the revolution failed, the events of that autumn day showed the participants that they were no longer powerless. I’m also sure that participants in the reburial of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs felt the same way: they were witnesses to the beginning of a new era. Yes, something changed yesterday, but it looks that members of the Hungarian government haven’t taken notice yet. Otherwise they wouldn’t insist on going ahead with the tax.
The man who announced the government’s resolve was Szilárd Németh, a long-time Fidesz member of parliament and, more recently, commissioner in charge of the successful campaign for utility price decreases. Németh began his career as a school librarian, although I can better imagine him as a bouncer in front of a nightclub in some less than reputable district of Budapest. I assume that he got the job of selling the Internet tax because of his great success with the utility rate campaign, which increased public support for the government from 17% to over 40%.
Some people are puzzled about Viktor Orbán’s absence and why he picked this particular time to visit his oldest daughter in Switzerland. After all, it was during his absence that the somewhat belated budget proposal was introduced in parliament. Even before we learned about the numerous new taxes included in the proposed budget, there was widespread fear that a new austerity program was waiting for the no longer unsuspecting Hungarian public. Did he want to run away from the upcoming storm? Perhaps. However, those who naively think that the chaos in Budapest is due to the prime minister’s absence are wrong. Németh this morning spoke in Orbán’s name.
The two massive demonstrations in three days are hard to ignore or explain away. However, the delusional members of the administration convinced themselves that the demonstrations were actually organized by the opposition parties who misled 100,000 people into staging a political attack against the government. Government politicians by now really seem to believe their own propaganda about the unity of the nation and support for the government by every true Hungarian. The people out on the streets had to be misled, pure and simple. By the end of his interview Németh accused Ferenc Gyurcsány of being behind the plot. As critics of the opposition parties were quick to note: wouldn’t it be nice if these parties could actually organize such huge crowds.
Zoltán Lakner, one of the few talented political analysts in Hungary, pointed out that by virtue of the government itself admitting that the demonstrations were political in nature, it created a huge political conflict out of a simple tax question. Another observer, Zoltán Somogyi, reminded us that “one prime minister had to resign because of a 300-forint co-pay, another will soon follow him because of a 700-forint” Internet tax. Of course, he was referrring to Ferenc Gyurcsány. Other political scientists are also convinced that if Fidesz does not change tactics, a political avalanche will follow. Even Ágoston Sámuel Mráz, a fierce defender of the Orbán government and CEO of Nézőpont Intézet, admitted that the demonstrations are serious warnings to the government and that even the stability created by the three victorious elections may not be enough to combat the political problem Viktor Orbán is facing.
Finally, I would like to say a few words about the opposition parties’ position vis-à-vis this civic Facebook-organized movement. Before the Sunday demonstration, DK was planning a demonstration in front of NAV headquarters, the tax office, for Monday. Of course, this demonstration had nothing to do with the Internet tax but rather with the alleged corruption charges leveled against the office. Once the demonstration took place on Sunday, DK cancelled the event because they did not want to interfere in any way with a most likely much larger and more important demonstration on Tuesday. The party urged its members and supporters to join the planned demonstration. Együtt-PM and LMP did the same. MSZP said nothing.
Last night, after the official demonstration was over, about 2,000 people went to Kossuth tér in front of Parliament where they demanded that the EU flag be displayed. In the past both the Hungarian and the EU flags were displayed until László Kövér ordered that the EU flag be removed. He discovered that it is not compulsory to fly the EU flag on member states’ parliament buildings. That had to be a joyful discovery for the man who obviously hates the European Union through and through.
So, there was the crowd demanding the flag, but there was no way to force the people inside to oblige. At that point three women appeared in one of the windows with two EU flags. The reaction was stupendous. Cheers went up and most people recognized that one of the women was Ágnes Kunhalmi, an MSZP member of parliament and chair of MSZP in Budapest. The other two were also members of MSZP, Anita Heriges, and Ildikó Borbély. They waved the flags to the cheering crowd. It was a gesture that was highly appreciated. Party members and demonstrating civilians worked together for a brief moment to the satisfaction of both.
What was the official MSZP reaction to this gesture? Zoltán Gőgös, a member of parliament and an expert on agricultural matters, announced today at a press conference that although MSZP sympathizes with the organizers of the demonstrations, the party as such will not support them in any way. He singled out Ágnes Kunhalmi, who according to him did not wave the EU flag as a campaign gesture but simply responded to the request of the demonstrators. Of course, the opposition parties must be very careful not to give the impression that they in any way want to influence or lead the civilians, but it is the greatest folly to distance themselves officially.