A watershed? Did Hungarian society awaken as some people think?

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.

Source: Népszabadság / Photo Simon Móricz-Sabján

Source: Népszabadság / Photo Simon Móricz-Sabján

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.

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82 comments

  1. interest on debt / outlays = 6.95%
    interest on debt / revenues = 7.30%

    Pet projects:

    Stadium building and other sports (they did not summarize, this is just my partial counting on page 72)

    95.5 billion forints

    Support to churches: 39.5 billion (just the numbers added on page 74)

    Hungarian Arts Academy: 5.3 billion

    Parliament: 25.0 billion

    under Lazar:
    National Strategy Institute : 1.2 billion
    System Change Institute: 0.3
    Veritas: 0.3
    Language Strategy Institute: 0.1
    Eszterhaza: 0.8 billion
    National Public Service University: 3.7 + 4.0 Ludovica campus

    Holocaust Documentation Center (Pava street) 0.2
    Bocuse d’Or cook competition 2016: 0.3
    Nagykovacsi Castle: 1.4

    Paks 2: 28.2 billion

    Secret services: 10.9+11.8+ where are the others?

  2. Support to teaching religion in public schools, p.69: 2.4 billion
    Lezsak’s Lakitelek College: 0.3
    Holocaust Memorial year (Maria Schmidt ?, p.47) 4.4 billion

  3. Social Fund (support for the poor, support to families with young children, GyES):

    – 68 billion vs 2014.

    p.25
    [646.0 in 2015 vs 714 billion in 2014]

  4. Responding to D7, I fully understand the Norwegians position on the illegitimacy of the audit, its nice in principle, but if individual staff members are potentially facing a bogus indictment for embezzlement a more detailed refutation of the audit will be required to defend them. While for legal reasons complete disclosure of any counter audit might be unwise, references to the problematic nature of the state authorized audit need to be made early on. If the audit is devastated based on generally accepted accounting principles it becomes more difficult to prosecute the staff because the evidence is effectively tainted.

    The best defense is sometimes a powerful offense. Somehow I get the feeling the Norwegians believe Orban would never authorize actual prosecution of the fund’s Hungarian staff, I am not so sure of that – maybe they are right – maybe they are wrong.

  5. @Istvan:

    Rest assured that Orban has already authorized the prosecution, this is not a question of if, but when. Prosecution means nothing to Orba, it’s a useful means and the ukaz is that we don’t give in until we get what we want.

    However if Orban can reach a “compromise” to his liking with the Norwegians, he will not appeal (and thus prolong the process) the first instance judgement. I don’t think we can stop before that.

    Well, if the Norwegians agree that he and Lazar can decide about the money then that’s a possibility too.

    Orban and Lazar will make sure that the Norwegians will be blamed, ie it is they who will be responsible for the next 4-5 years of legal torment of the defendants. They could have saved them, but they decided to play hardball instead: well, then see your loved ones hurt.

    This is the current strategy.

  6. “Somehow I get the feeling the Norwegians believe Orban would never authorize actual prosecution of the fund’s Hungarian staff, I am not so sure of that – maybe they are right – maybe they are wrong.”

    The Norwegians (and indeed the NGOers themselves) are not that naïve- if the regime believe they “can get away” with jailing NGOers and charity workers on trumped up charges they won’t hesitate.

    The Fidesz thugs will, in all probability jail them anyway in the short or long term, whether or not they get the money, so why make it easy for Orban and his fascist scum? That’s the attitude in NGO-world presently.

    However, Lazar, post the report “invited” the Norwegians for a chat this week, they have basically told him to get stuffed. So, neither the Norwegians nor the NGOers are backing down.

    A prominent member of the German Foreign Ministry was (very publicly) visiting NGOs this week. The US has, of course, expressed its opinion.

    So, if the regime does move, then it knows there will be consequences and at the moment it is not really in the position to take on more “consequences”. The NGOs remain operative and a thorn in Lazar and The Dear Leader’s side.

  7. Tuesday evening, some shouted “Ria Ria Hungária! Gia Gia Norvégia!” 🙂

    Numerous articles were published in Héti Válasz and Mandiner these last two days. Beyond the subject of the Internet tax itself, two things seem to bother the authors.

    Firstly, the seclusive governing style. This proposition of taxing a new economic sector had obviously not been discussed with anyone concerned, an example of a trend now impossible to ignore.

    Second is the drift to the East. Not only is an unrestrained Internet sector a thing of the West, but the measure comes in a sequence (the NGO feud, Navracsics’ treatment, the US visa bans, the gas flow affair) which somehow materialized what before had only been speeches.

    Whatever happens to the netadó, unless the whole authoritarian, ‘semi-asian’, ‘illiberal’ project Orbán has engaged the country into is at least stalled, if not abandoned, these doubts can only grow.

  8. “If the audit is devastated based on generally accepted accounting principles it becomes more difficult to prosecute the staff because the evidence is effectively tainted.”

    You can devastate an audit all you want, it has no relevance on the court case. The court will look at the source documents used in the audit. Meaning they will look at the original Okotars documents and determine whether the embezzlement, fraud, forgery, financial misconduct and other crimes took place. If the crimes were there in the original Okotars documents the court will find them, no matter what happened in the audit.

    This sort of documentary evidence can never become tainted because it was legally seized in a police search in front of witnesses, including Okotars workers and policemen. Their testimony can prove that the documents were in the Okotars office and on the Okotars computers. Everyone can pretend to ignore the audit’s findings, but the documentary evidence is impossible to ignore once it is made public in the court case.

  9. Also note the prosecution vs. courts. The two branches are rather jealous of each other so if one gets a raise the other wants it too.

    The favoured prosecution gets a 5.6% increase, while the courts only 1.16%.

    It seems Polt with his hobnobbing with Orban at Felcsút Stadium has a better lobby power. Or rather Orban needs the loyalty of the prosecution because things really get decided on within the prosecution (97% of the defendants in the courts get convicted).

  10. KTP,

    Let’s be clear: there is no case.

    The involved authorities are executing a political command.

    Unfortunately in Hungary the courts would never throw out a case in the preparatory phase, they fully hear and entertain any case however ludicrous it is legally or factually.

    Just as somebody predicted, once the busy days were over at Belügy, the trolls are back spreading their carefully thought out BS.

    I guess the old rules remain the same: the prosecution is the fist of the party, there can be no question about that. And confession is the queen of evidence, isn’t it?

  11. Viktor Orban sent her daughter Rahel (formerly Rachel) “Rasi” Orban to study in Switzerland (and not elsewhere) so he could have a cover at any time he wants to go to Switzerland (e.g. negotiate with Russians about energy deals or manage his Privatstiftung).

  12. Jarek, your confidence amazes me. How can you pre-judge a trial which did not even start yet? I will reserve judgement until I see the documentary evidence: the original Okotars papers. Will they prove that Okotars did everything lawfully and legally?

    The facts are the most important. Either someone committed embezzlement or they did not. Both cannot be true at the same time.

  13. About Eva’s suggestion that this might be a watershed. I have my doubts (but I would very much like to see they were inappropriate). The problem is not that the young people may not have understood, probably many of them have. The problem, we learned in the past years, is a pragmatic idea of what to do (not only with the internet tax but the country and with Orban’s legacy) and how to unite those people who are due to different reasons victims or opponents of OV. The protests of the young people will hopefully remain powerful but unless their parents’ generation manages to overcome their “eternal divisions” and battles and some personal animosities, OV will somehow manage to survive this crisis also. Eva, you emigrated also, why should these young people not leave in even larger numbers than already now, it is so much easier than in 1956.

  14. @Kirsten

    Momentum. Like in a boxing match. Fidesz got a self-inflicted big punch, they are dizzy, confused, they talk incoherently.

    If the organizers stick to the November 17 date for the next rally, Orban wins. If they organize a march every second day, Orban loses.

  15. tappanch, I believe you are right. Unless they use these three weeks for an intense search for a united opposition, including the moderate conservatives and former Fidesz supporters who *all of sudden* understand.

  16. Back to some interesting numbers in the budget.

    Spending on:

    Recall:
    Stadium building : 95.5 (my rough counting only from page 72) + 4.5 (p. 68)
    Direct support to churches: 39.5 billion

    6 secret services: 63.7
    Police: 254.4
    Hungarian IRS (NAV) 124.7
    Prosecutors: 39.8 billion
    Courts: 87.6 billion
    Jails: 54.0
    Military: 218.5

    Support for all universities and colleges: 143.2
    Ambulance service in the entire country: 0.6 (they also have 32 billion income, from where?)

  17. @KTP your language betrays you.

    “Will they prove that Okotars did everything lawfully and legally?”

    The previous Hungarian constitution had a presumption of innocence. Was that lost in the new one?

  18. Kirsten, this is for the time being a very focused movement, with little claims regarding politics or society as a whole.

    Tuesday, like Sunday, when someone within the crowd striked up a “Orbán takarodj!” or a “Mocskos Fidesz!” a few people shouted along for a short while, but most just laughed, more amused than committed. And though the pro-EU mood was stronger the second time, it wasn’t very resolute either – though the ‘battle of the flag’, which I unfortunately didn’t witness, seems promising. Finally, there is little utopia, if any – and it shows in the lack of creativity in the slogans and signs. This isn’t the ‘Bosnian Spring’, nor the Bulgarian anti-corruption movement of last summer.

    However, what may be regarded as a lack of ambition might paradoxically be a serious strength. The usual fallacies of the Fidesz propaganda machine are falling flat, in the absence of a definite ideological affiliation. The theme of the protest has an indisputable generational appeal, that reaches through to Fidesz sympathizers who start asking questions. And the goal is simple: the repel of an article of law (‘eradicating corruption’, ‘restoring democracy’ are complex claims).

  19. The impact of the Fidesz policies:

    2015 [2010], % of budget expenses

    Education: 9.7% [11.6%]
    Healthcare: 8.3% [ 9.1%]
    Social Security 18.7% [19.8%]
    Unemployment: 1.5% [ 2.2%]

    Government operations 16.4% [15.3%]
    Economy, transportation 18.1% [14.3%]

    [I did not check these data]

  20. “e.g. negotiate with Russians about energy deals or manage his Privatstiftung”

    Or receive medical treatment far from prying eyes?

  21. “About Eva’s suggestion that this might be a watershed. I have my doubts (but I would very much like to see they were inappropriate). ”

    I think the fact that Orban has decided not to bring elderly regime-loyalists into the streets as it has done in the past is perhaps as significant as the pro-democracy protests.

    Why are we not seeing another “Peace” (sic) March?

    Hard to convince OAPS to march in favour of a Russian dictator?
    Fear of upsetting the US?
    Orban’s hold over even his own natural constituency is not as strong as he previously believed?
    Bad PR- the vast majority of the Peace Marchers are generally over 50, the pro-democracy movement are generally younger than 30?
    Internal Fidesz war?

    Whatever the reason, something has changed since the last time they rolled down Andrassy with their Orban and Kover icons.

  22. As with other countries in similar positions to Hungary, the simple answer is that it’s the economy, stupid. Orban’s tactics and populism may be despised by many Hungarians but he has presided over Hungary’s economic recovery, however meagre. In 2010, Orban was in the right place at the right time and swept the left-wing from government on the heels of the 2008-09 global financial crisis which they presided over and are thus associated with.

    I believe that the prospect of economic recovery is what gave Orban his super-majority in 2010 and allowed him to take the country under his thumb as he has done ever since. As a market-oriented populist, like Mssrs. Erdogan and Putin, Orban has skilfully used the economy to entrench his political apparatus and agenda. Fidesz is excellent at grassroots politics and this is where many of its young leaders (e.g. Szijjarto) have emerged from.

    Unless the anti-Orban crowd can build a cohesive and unified movement out of the cacophony of opposition groups, parties and activists in Hungary, there will be little to no chance of unseating Orban/Fidesz in the foreseeable future, 2018 and beyond. For this, there needs to be a real, believable and viable economic road map in place to pull votes away from Fidesz, and given the many competing views in the opposition, that is an extremely tall order.

  23. Dear Editor, I beg to disagree. What you’re proposing is a pathetically simplistic argument which cannot even be supported by facts.

    We can agree that the opposition is non-existent, but a “viable economic roadmap” is the missing all-important ingredient? In Hungary? Where people didn’t say a word, let alone stage any demonstration when Orban nationalized their private pensions worth HUF 3,000bn? When Orban talks about bullshit and non-existent “extra profits” and millions eat his words?

    I can assure you that Orban has zero such roadmap either (other than to milk the EU and steal as much as possible and in the meantime get in bed with Russia to make some money on energy too).

    One can only hope that you are not a real editor anywhere because this comment of yours displays serious lack of understanding of the complexity of the situation.

  24. The Hungarian economical growth nothing but a painted façade on paper – will disappear in no time, one need add only some water…

    If you didn’t noticed yet, Orbán grasping even for pennies, while pretending to be wealthy, filling economical holes with temporary solutions here and there while trying to create the impression of action, the classic example of the forward retreat – if the term even applicable.

    There is no real production to speak of, keeping up the Hungarian economy afloat is mostly like chainsaw juggling – you can not really afford glitches in the smooth movement, do you?

    What it means really?
    Orbán&Co most keep a steady flow of income in order to exist, and since their economical policy is nothing more but the state-improved version of extortion and highway robbery, they going more and more after anyone with anything to take from, any next idea is more desperate than the one before, and growing more desperate by the day.

    This is the economy, stupid!

    Keeping incomes low:
    – Wrong, since the populace has no chance to prosper, most not even able to live on their work based income.
    – Wrong, since from the low income only low tax revenue can collected, whatever the rate.
    – Wrong, since there always will be some other county who has even lower wages, so Hungary going out of the race in no time.

    Keeping prices low to everyone:
    – Wrong, since the producers can not realise their investments, hence not motivated.
    – Wrong, since the WAT turnover remains low, even if the rate high.
    – Wrong, since the wealthy have undeserved benefits.

    Keeping WAT highest in the whole Europe:
    – Wrong, since it keep the consumption as low as possible.
    – Wrong, since it preserves the relative price index on the wrong side and inspire tax frauds as we know it.

    This is the economy, stupid!

  25. So what we are agreed on is that the EU continues to pump money into Hungary which is leveraged by the Orban government to generate the mirage of economic recovery (however unsustainable). Yet Hungarians continue to buy into this mirage and keep giving Fidesz vote after vote at every level of government allowing them to cement their power. Meanwhile, Hungarians choose to turn out to protest against a proposed internet tax, but not against the nationalization of billions of Ft worth of pensions. From the sounds of it, the majority of Hungarians have nobody to blame but themselves, with the EU a distant second.

  26. MarcelDe: “However, what may be regarded as a lack of ambition might paradoxically be a serious strength. The usual fallacies of the Fidesz propaganda machine are falling flat, in the absence of a definite ideological affiliation.”

    I see that you have not grown up in Communism. There are no fallacies, people who renounce their faith are *obviously* wrecking the cause and cannot be counted as true Hungarians (Communists) anymore. I exaggerate of course and yet this has been the logic up to now, and it has not been contested by the majority of the population. To break with this logic would require interest in and solidarity with the causes of other victims of Fidesz AND some more strategic and political approach. Even open support for the supra-national EU and “capitalism”. This apolitical protest is clueless and without any drive to learn to act strategically and politically. Orban is considered a political “genius”, I start to understand why – but no particular skills are necessary with so disoriented a people to take over the country. This “lack of ambition” is lack of ambition, and the outcome (OV will introduce some new taxes within the next six months) will only lead to a new round of “disappointment” of people with “politics”. I believe without a broader agenda, this protest will dissipate at some point, as all others before have also.

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