András Bruck

In Viktor Orbán’s absence anti-regime forces are gathering

The Hungarian media is full of articles and opinion pieces about Viktor Orbán’s disappearance since Christmas Eve, when he posted a silly selfie peering from behind a Christmas tree. He missed his customary New Year greetings and was not spotted anywhere getting in or out of his Volkswagen minibus. Given the less than friendly domestic atmosphere, the media and the public suspect that he’s in one of his alleged depression cycles that usually happen when things aren’t going well for him. When asked, the chief of the prime minister’s press department claimed that he is not on vacation. He is working as usual, but from home. And those Hungarians who can scarcely wait for one of his Friday morning monologues will be happy to know that the prime minister will deliver his pearls of wisdom tomorrow.

Orban 2014 karacsony

In Hungary everything revolves around Viktor Orbán. If he disappears for over two weeks, the domestic news flow shrinks to practically nothing. Issues that are currently making waves are the results of earlier bad decisions, like the law on Sunday closings and the introduction of tolls on roads that were until now free.

Since nothing is happening on the government front, I’ll turn to a recent article by András Bruck, one of my favorite political commentators. About this time of the year, a day after Christmas in 2013, I wrote a fairly lengthy summary of one of  his essays entitled “The Sign” that appeared in Élet és Irodalom. Unfortunately, the essay is not available for non-subscribers to ÉS, and therefore I suggest that you read my post, “András Bruck’s new encounter with George Orwell’s 1984.” In brief, Bruck recalls that in the early 1980s, when he was first able to read 1984, he was disappointed. The book was about “a different bad world” from the one in which he lived. While making love he felt neither fear nor hatred. He didn’t consider the three famous slogans of Ingsoc, WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH appropriate for Kádár’s Hungary. However, re-reading the book, he came to the conclusion that “every word of that book from the first to the last is about this sick, deformed regime in which, just like in the novel, the binding agent of power is lying.” His conclusion is that Hungary is a dictatorship pure and simple and that those who claim that Hungary is still a kind of democracy are kidding themselves.

Lately, András Bruck’s essays no longer appear in ÉS but in HVG, perhaps because he would like to reach a wider audience. Earlier he wrote infrequently, but since early November he has published two articles and gave an interview to Sándor Friderikusz on ATV. This radical critic of the Orbán regime seems to be optimistic for the first time in the past five years. The title of his November 7 article is “Before newer demonstrations.” He correctly anticipated that the first large demonstration would be only the first of many. As he said in the interview, he had enough of “a regime in which a well-developed socialism came into being for the rich minority and an underdeveloped capitalism for the majority.” This rich minority receives undeserved benefits without competition while the majority gets only the burdens of a poorly developed capitalism.

It is this deformed political system which at last is meeting resistance, not only by those who went out to demonstrate but also by those hundreds of thousands who are by now openly critical of the regime and want to put an end to it.

Bruck maintains that although a lot of people charge that Orbán’s political decisions are ad hoc, the truth is different: “Here everything happens according to a master plan.” It all started with two concepts cunningly devised: (1) a centralized political field of power that ensures permanent governing with a weak opposition and (2) the introduction of unorthodox economic planning. These two concepts, once put into reality, “enabled Viktor Orbán to establish a one-party system and his own personal rule.” His “illiberal confession” last summer merely marked the finished job.

Just as the socialist one-party system was impossible to reform, the Orbán regime cannot be “corrected” either. But the good news is that “this sick, deformed regime … has as much chance of survival as all its similar predecessors.” And “this new mass on the streets last week sent a clear and understandable message and for a moment the government took notice.” But only for a moment because they are convinced that they will be lucky and “there will never be a last straw.” In dictatorships it is quite often the case that there is a “total lack of any sense of danger” among the perpetrators. The people who have been serving this regime believe that they have nothing to worry about. It doesn’t occur to them that one day a new parliament may declare the present system a dictatorship and hence illegitimate. They think that their clever lawyers will save them and that their wealth will be safe stashed away somewhere outside of the country. But this time these sins shouldn’t go unpunished. Only unblemished individuals should sit in judgment. Some opposition politicians are not worthy of the task.

Bruck finishes his essay by quoting Gergely Gulyás, whom he describes as “the young star of Fidesz’s good cop department,” who said in Berlin recently: “Hungarians know very well the difference between democracy and a one-party system, the rule of  law and dictatorship.” Bruck added, “He said that well. Yes, we know it.”

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Viktor Orbán’s Russian policy is unchanged, at least for the time being

A couple of days ago I saw a fascinating interview with András Bruck, a writer and an astute observer of the Hungarian political scene. Every time a new Bruck article appears, which is not that often, there is great excitement among people whose political views are similar to mine. For a number of years now, I have been an admirer, but this was the first time that I saw him in an interview situation. He didn’t disappoint me.

During the long interview Bruck talked about an interesting characteristic of Viktor Orbán. The greater the pressure, the greater his boldness. As if he were tempting fate. Almost as if he were testing the threshold at the point of no return. This characteristic has become especially pronounced lately as pressure on him, both internationally and at home, mounts. If Hungary’s allies don’t like his policies toward Russia, he makes sure that in every speech, whether the reference is appropriate to the occasion or not, he talks about the soundness of his foreign policy. If there is serious discontent at home because of his government’s corruption and his own questionable business dealings, he flaunts his close connection with two of his front men by attending the opening of their new ill-gotten businesses. Almost like a serial killer who gets bolder and bolder with each new murder, as if he wants to be caught.

Today I’m going to concentrate on one manifestation of that boldness: Hungarian-Russian relations. It is abundantly clear that neither the United States nor the European Union is happy with Orbán’s Russia policy. This unhappiness has been expressed in all sorts of ways, some subtle, some less so. One would expect that Orbán, even if he didn’t heed Western advice, would at least not call attention to his close ties to Vladimir Putin. But not so. In the last couple of days Orbán made it known that in his opinion Hungary’s national interest is his only concern and that a friendship with Russia is of paramount importance to his government.

On November 19 Orbán addressed the Diaspora Council, one of the many new Fidesz creations that is supposed to strengthen “national unity” across borders. He delivered an hour-long speech in which he felt it necessary to explain his position on Russia.

We have a given geopolitical situation…. We have more powerful and bigger neighbors to the East and to the West. Germanic people to the west, Slavic to the east, and a bit father the Russians. Consequently, we will be loyal to our NATO allies even if we do not share even 50 percent of what they say and think… We do not want a new Cold War. I grew up in the Cold War and I have no wish to end my life in another one…. We will express our discontent to anyone when we see our national interests being harmed. We do not want a new Wall to the East.

Two days later, in a speech to an audience of about 150 people at the Stiftung Familieunternehmen in Baden-Baden, he returned to the topic but this time the message was different. After all, he delivered that speech in Germany. Here he showed himself to be a great friend of Ukraine, the sovereignty of which is of the utmost importance to Hungary because “we think that there must be something between Russia and Hungary…. We once had a common border with the Soviet Union and that was quite an adventure.”

Now let’s look at Hungarian-Russian relations from the vantage point of Moscow. On November 19 Vladimir Putin hailed Hungary as one of Russia’s most important partners. “We share the attitude of the Hungarian leadership aimed at growing constructive dialogue, jointly carrying out planned very large investment projects,” Putin announced at a Kremlin ceremony where Hungary’s new ambassador presented his credentials. He said Russia considered Budapest “one of the most important political, trade and economic partners.”

On the same day Péter Szijjártó was in Moscow to talk with Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister. As MTI reported, both men were upbeat after their meeting. Lavrov praised Hungary for not being antagonistic toward Russsia, adding that “there are more and more responsible member states in NATO and the European Union” who urge dialogue based on mutual respect. Hungary is certainly one of these, he added. Lavrov especially appreciated the fact that Hungary had confirmed its resolve to build the Hungarian section of the Southern Stream project.

Sergei Lavrov and Péter Szijjártó, Moscow, November 19, 2010

Sergei Lavrov and Péter Szijjártó, Moscow, November 19, 2014

Szijjártó was also upbeat. He expressed his hope for early negotiations between the European Union and Russia over the construction of the Southern Stream. He emphasized that Hungary looks upon Russia as an important partner that plays a key role in ensuring the energy security of Central Europe. The rebuilding of practical and constructive cooperation between Russia and the European Union is in Hungary’s interest, Szijjártó emphasized.

Finally, a piece of information about Hungarian-Russian relations that the Hungarian government neglected to tell the country’s inhabitants. The most widely read Russian news portal, Gazeta.ru, ran an interview with Liubov Shishelina, a Russian expert on Hungary. From that interview we learned that Szijjártó went to Moscow not only to talk with Lavrov and other Russian politicians but also to prepare a forthcoming meeting, the fifth since 2010, between Putin and Orbán. This is not the first time that we learn details of Hungarian foreign policy from Russian sources.

András Bruck’s new encounter with George Orwell’s 1984

Before the holidays I wrote two posts dealing with different interpretations of the system Viktor Orbán established in Hungary in the last three and a half years. Now I offer yet another analysis, this time by András Bruck. It appeared only a week ago in Élet és Irodalom.  Bruck is one of the most astute, and most radical, observers of Hungarian political life. His conclusion is that all those on the left who claim that Hungary is still “a kind of democracy” are kidding themselves. Bruck makes no bones about it: he considers Orbán’s Hungary a dictatorship pure and simple. His essay, which I summarize here, deals with the similarities between George Orwell’s nightmarish Nineteen Eighty-four and Orbán’s Hungary today.

Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four were on the list of forbidden books in Hungary until the mid-1980s, but a few people did manage to get copies already in the 1960s. I personally received requests from friends to bring them along in either 1967 or 1968. It seems that Bruck managed to get hold of a copy only sometime in the early 1980s. He was disappointed. The book was about “a different bad world” from the one in which he lived. While making love he felt neither fear nor hatred. He didn’t consider the three famous slogans of Ingsoc, WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH appropriate for Kádár’s Hungary.

This spring he found his copy of Nineteen Eighty-four in the bottom of a box: “it lay there like a skeleton but this time the dead came to life.” Bruck reached the conclusion that “every word of that book from the first to the last is about this sick, deformed regime in which, just like in the novel, the binding agent of power is lying.” Everything  means the opposite of what it is officially called. The Manifesto of National Cooperation is the document of national division; the Peace March is actually a battle march, just as in Orwell’s book the Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war. The leaders of these marches are the messengers of hatred, men like Gábor Széles, Zsolt Bayer, and András Bencsik.

Today’s government party has its own Emmanuel Goldstein–Ferenc Gyurcsány, the number one enemy of the people whom it is a patriotic duty to hate. Many of those who are the loudest in his condemnation know nothing about him just as Julia, Winston’s lover, doesn’t have the foggiest idea who Goldstein was.

In Orbán’s Hungary words have lost their meaning. In his world “Hungarian ownership” actually means handing property, factories, land to his own family, friends, and minions. To be national and Hungarian means to agree with his and his government’s decisions. If he says that Hungary’s economy is the most competitive in the region, it means that the country is sliding downward. When he says that everybody in Europe is envious of us this means that everybody is horrified at the changes that have taken place in Hungary since 2010.

Orwell 3

Hungarians are often amazed at Orbán’s temerity when they hear that he is capable of saying one thing one day and on the next its exact opposite. But in Orwell’s novel Winston Smith wonders how it is possible that one day the announcement is made that the chocolate ration was reduced to twenty grams and the next day people are told that it was raised to twenty grams. “Was it possible that they could swallow that, after only twenty-four hours? Yes, they swallowed it.”

Then, Bruck quotes a few sentences from Nineteen Eighty-four that he finds appropriate:

“If the facts say otherwise then the facts must be altered.”

“The fabulous statistics continued to pour out of the telescreen.”

One “should have the mentality appropriate to a state of war. It doesn’t matter whether the war is actually happening.”

“To change one’s mind, or even one’s policy, is a confession of weakness.”

“The proles are not human beings.”

“The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred.”

Bruck finds all these in Orbán’s system. Even anti-Orbán analysts don’t understand the nature of the system. They simply refuse to acknowledge that there is dictatorship in Hungary. “But if you deny it you must act as if there is democracy or in the worst case it is a mafia state.” After the disgraceful speech Orbán delivered on October 23 in which “he tossed half the nation in front of a coming train” left-wing analysts on ATV had barely anything to say. “They analyzed. They know and declare that there is no morality and decency in the world of politics and if cannibalism would bring votes then it is the good politician who would chew half an arm right there in the studio.”

Winston Smith, although well versed in the system of Ingsoc, understood how the regime operated but “he didn’t understand why.” In Hungary the left-wing intellectual elite, very much like Smith, can’t understand why Orbán hamstrings the schools, why he drains all the assets of the banks, why he creates hatred, why he makes the lives of the poor even more miserable, why he appoints all those half-wits to important jobs, why he isolates his country, why he turns to the dictators of the tundra, why he wants to see his political opponents in jail, why he takes others’ money, in brief why he is behaving like a dictator. Surely, Bruck continues, all this is not done only to let the mafia state move money more easily from one oligarch to the next. Was all this barbarity introduced only to make it easy for one company to get all the tenders offered by the state? Clearly, Bruck doesn’t believe in the theory of the mafia state.

The answer to Smith’s question about the “why” of the Orwellian state comes from O’Brien: “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power.” Bruck here says, “At last! Someone at last said it. In the depth of my soul I wished for such a sentence. So besides the sheer wanting of power, besides the psychology of the totalitarian mind, there is nothing else…. there is no ideology, no vision, no ideas about the future.”

In order for a dictatorship to function one needs consciously created ignorance, which goes together with the falsification of history. According to Bruck, Orbán and Fidesz began by falsifying the history of the first twenty years that followed the regime change. Then they rewrote the history of 1944, and on October 23 they began the falsification of the history of ’56. Winston Smith says in 1984 that “if the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened–that, surely, was  more terrifying than mere torture and death.” Or later: “And if all others accepted the  lie which the Party imposed–if all records told the same tale–then the lie passed into history and became truth.” After all, Bruck adds, a new historical institute is already planned whose name will be Veritas. Perhaps in a better future it can more appropriately be called the Institute of Mendacity. “What else is waiting for us? A few more years and we won the battle of the Don. And not one Jew was deported because the governor didn’t allow it…. Not even the present is taboo anymore. Only recently the prime minister announced that there was no revolution in 2010 when he himself earlier said that there was one, which was endorsed by parliament.” O’Brien has something to say about this also: “One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”

Bruck bitterly concludes his essay with these words. “So, luckily we don’t have to worry because the prime minister himself denies that there was a revolution in Hungary while the whole Hungarian left denies the existence of dictatorship. So, it seems all is well.”

The zeal of Viktor Orbán: Where will it lead?

In some respects the present political leadership reminds me more of the Rákosi regime than of the Kádár period. Before someone jumps on me, let me emphasize the words “in some respects.” First and foremost, I think of the zeal with which the Orbán-led political elite began to rebuild society. This entailed a radical change of everything known before. The Fidesz leadership seems to be very satisfied with the results. Just the other day László Kövér claimed that under their rule all the nooks and crannies of society that had developed since the regime change of 1989-90 were reshaped. Everything that came before 2010 had to be altered in order to build a new Hungary.

The last time we saw such zeal was in the late 1940s and early 1950s when the communists wanted to turn the whole world upside down or, to use another metaphor, to wipe the slate clean. As one of their songs promised: “we will erase the past.” And they began in earnest. They wanted to build an entirely new political system–immediately.

Such attempts usually fail because such rapid change cannot be achieved without ransacking the economy. If one lets the experts go for political reasons and fills their positions with people who finished at best eight grades, the results are predictable. If you get rid of the former manager of a factory because he is deemed to be reactionary and you hire a worker without any experience in management to run the newly nationalized factory, we know what will happen. And indeed, in no time the Hungarian economy, which had recovered after the war with surprising speed, was in ruins. Food rations had to be reintroduced in 1951 or 1952.

This is the same kind of zeal that one sees with the Orbán government. Only yesterday Tibor Navracsics proudly announced that in three years they managed to pass 600 new laws. He added–because Orbán and company can certainly compete with Rákosi and his gang when it comes to bragging–that these laws are of the highest quality. In fact, legal scholars are horrified at the poor quality of the legislative bills pushed through in a great hurry with last-minute amendments.

By contrast János Kádár, who became the first secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party (at that point called Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt), moved slowly, hoping to gain acceptance after the failed uprising. In fact, the whole Kádár period was known for its cautious, deliberate move toward a less oppressive regime. It was still a dictatorship but it was based on an understanding with the citizens who were ready to make some political compromises in exchange for a better life. By the 1980s, although there were some taboo topics,  intellectual freedom was greater than in any of the other satellite countries.

Intellectual freedom. Unfortunately the present political elite’s attitude toward literature and art greatly resembles that of the Rákosi era when there was a long list of forbidden books and when, as far as art and literature were concerned, socialist realism was the only accepted form. The situation today is not very different. The government supports art and literature that is “national.” Modernity is out and the nineteenth-century classical style is favored. Fidesz politicians on both the local and the national level make sure that only theater directors who cater to their taste are appointed. The very successful director Róbert Alföldi lost out in his bid to continue with his work at the National Theater to a man who talks about the National Theater as a sacred place that he plans to have blessed by a Catholic priest. The plays he is going to stage are mostly written by Hungarian authors. The emphasis is on Hungarian, not on quality.

I could easily be charged with overstating the similarities between the two leaders and their governments. For instance, one could retort, don’t compare the poverty of the Rákosi regime to that of today. But don’t forget that in the late 1940s and early 1950s Hungary was still paying war reparations to Russia while today Hungary is getting handsome subsidies from the European Union. Believe me, without that money Hungary would not be able to meet its financial obligations. Another difference is that today there are still large foreign companies in Hungary which by the way are practically the only source of Hungarian exports. Without them the country would be in even greater economic trouble than it is now. However, Viktor Orbán is working hard to take over some of the foreign companies and banks. And if he continues with his onerous tax policy, the owners of these businesses will most likely be glad to sell to a state that seems more than eager to take them over and that, so far at least, has not balked at overpaying.

Viktor Orbán as some blogger sees him / ellenallas.blog

Viktor Orbán as a blogger sees him / ellenallas.blog

As for the clientele of the two regimes. The Hungarian communists in 1948 and afterwards wanted to obliterate the old upper and even lower middle classes and give power to the working class. The better-off peasantry was also considered to be an enemy of the people. They made  no secret of the fact that they wanted a complete change: those who were on the top would be at the bottom and the poor peasants and workers would be on top. They didn’t even try to hide their intentions. Orbán is undertaking the same kind of social restructuring, albeit with different winners and losers. His goal is a complete change of not only the business but also the intellectual elite. Those who sympathize with the liberals or the socialists will be squeezed out and politically reliable Fidesz supporters will take their place.

People I know and whose opinion I trust tell me that Magyar Televízió and Magyar Rádió had more balanced reporting in the second half of the 1980s than they do today. This is where Hungary has ended up after three years of frantic Fidesz efforts to remake the country.

András Bruck in a brilliant essay that appeared a few days ago in Élet és Irodalom insists that despite appearances Hungary today is a dictatorship because what else can one call a system in which every decision is made and put into practice by one man? And what is really depressing, says Bruck, is that the dictatorship prior to 1989 was forced upon Hungary by Soviet power. Today there is no such outside pressure. Hungarians themselves gave Fidesz practically unlimited power and for the time being show no signs of wanting to get rid of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. In fact, 1.5 million people are devoted to him and in a nationalist frenzy are ready to fight against the colonizers of the European Union. A shameful situation.

Is Viktor Orbán afraid? Yes, although he doesn’t have much to fear now

Yesterday a very pessimistic article appeared in Élet és Irodalom by András Bruck, who back in November had written an equally pessimistic piece entitled “No, Viktor Will Not Leave.” You may recall that Gáspár Miklós Tamás gently asked Viktor Orbán at the October 23rd demonstration to leave before it is too late.

This time Bruck is mourning the death of the protest movements. In “Hungary Is Quiet Again” he lists the aborted attempts of the students as well as the opposition politicians to come together and form a common platform. The students were effectively divided by the government while the opposition politicians simply cannot come to an understanding. All is lost, claims Bruck.

Demonstration in front of Fidesz headquarters / HVG Photo by István Fazekas

Demonstration in front of Fidesz headquarters / HVG Photo by István Fazekas

Indeed, the prospects are grim, but all is not lost. It is true that the “official” student representatives caved and sided with the government instead of fighting for the free movement of Hungarian students. They missed a real opportunity: the ruling powers feared the student masses when HÖOK and HaHa managed to demonstrate jointly on the streets. For the leaders of HÖOK, however, their positions in the hierarchy and the very substantial money these student associations receive from the government were more important than serving as the representatives of their fellow students. And yet there still remains a glimmer of hope. The last time around there were only about 70 students at Fidesz headquarters, today there were as many as 1,000, although serious pressure was brought against the student leaders. Heavy fines for high school students and harassment of the university students. Yet they didn’t give up. That is a good sign.

I must say that the behavior of the opposition politicians is less understandable than that of the opportunistic student leaders of HÖOK. After all, the student leaders are part of the power structure; they receive substantial benefits from the government. But the opposition leaders? Even those who have seats in parliament have nothing to lose. If they remain fragmented it can easily happen that not a single one of them will be able to continue in politics. Hungary will become a one-party system after a democratic election due to the electoral system introduced by the Orbán government.

The opposition, both the students and the politicians, should be heartened by the fact that the government party remains paranoid. Otherwise, it is difficult to imagine that such an important event as Fidesz’s twenty-fifth birthday would have been celebrated yesterday under the cloak of secrecy. Not even the reporter of the servile MTI was allowed inside party headquarters. Moreover, the party’s real birthday is March 30, 1988; it should have been celebrated today. The deterrent was most likely the announcement of the demonstration for today.

In the past the birthday party was a much publicized event that included spouses (mostly wives) and children. There were many photo opportunities. It seemed that not a year went by without a picture of Viktor Orbán chatting amiably with the anti-Semitic Zsolt Bayer. Now silence. Only a short press release. Péter Földes (fsp) suggested on his blog that the founders of Fidesz were either afraid or ashamed of their present selves. Several comments stressed that these guys don’t even know the meaning of the word “shame.”

Journalists were having a heyday collecting earlier quotations from Fidesz politicians, starting with András Bozóki who joined Fidesz two months after its establishment. In October 1988 he stressed that Fidesz is “not a political party but a youth organization that it is not interested in political power but wants to widen the forces of democracy among students.” The series of quotations ends with Tamás Deutsch’s claim (February 18, 2013) that “Fidesz came into being as a political organization in the western mold and it is still the same today.”

Meanwhile the present government keeps putting pressure on its youthful political opponents. In the dead of night the police raided and changed locks on a favorite cultural center for young people maintained by a Jewish youth organization because it was alleged that the occupation of Fidesz headquarters was organized there. The Hungarian police, not known for their smarts, forgot that there were other entrances. The next day students barricaded themselves inside. Then came the heavy-handed response from the City of Budapest, announcing that the organization had lost its right to the place. The servile MAZSIHISZ, which represents the Hungarian Jewry, didn’t defend the youth organization. It simply begged the city not to close the center until after Passover. The city generously obliged.

Meanwhile three students of HaHa were arrested without a warrant. Együtt 2014 called the methods employed by the police “reminiscent of the darkest days of the Kádár regime.” The name of János Kádár came up in another article. According to its author, even János Kádár was braver after the crushed revolution than Viktor Orbán is now. After all, Kádár had the guts to get half a million people on the streets on May 1, 1957 while Orbán and the co-founders of Fidesz hid from a small group of peaceful demonstrators. Kádár’s name was mentioned even in front of Fidesz headquarters. One of the speakers recalled Kádár’s political demise as an example for Orbán, indicating that his mismanagement of the country’s affairs might end in his being dropped by his own party.

Yes, all is not lost but it will be a difficult fight to get rid of the present rulers of Hungary. As long as the opposition parties don’t unite, opponents of the regime don’t believe that it is worth even going to the polls. There was hope after October 23, 2012, after Gordon Bajnai’s call for action. But since then not much has happened and the electorate has become discouraged. Without a united front of all forces there is no way to get rid of this government.