civil disobedience

Gábor Demszky on the illegitimacy of the Orbán regime and on civil disobedience

With municipal elections to be held this Sunday, I decided to devote a post to the political reactivation of Gábor Demszky, lord mayor of Budapest between 1990 and 2010.

After Demszky’s fifth term ended, he not only left political life, he left the country. Prominent members of former administrations learned soon after the 2010 election that avenues for gainful employment in the public sector were blocked. Demszky therefore applied for grants and scholarships abroad and spent three and a half years in Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States. Once he returned, he decided to share his opinions on the present state of politics in the country and in the city.

In early August, when Lajos Bokros was just one of the many candidates for the mayoralty of Budapest, Demszky announced that he would support him since he considered Bokros the best person for the job. Then in Élet és Irodalom he gave a long interview to Eszter Rádai just a couple of days before the democratic parties decided on Bokros as their candidate instead of their original choice, Ferenc Falus. Here he not only talked about why he considers Bokros to be the best man for the job, he also elaborated on the political importance of the mayor of the capital city in the regime change that will eventually take place. In addition, he talked about his conviction that the present regime can be removed only through civil disobedience. Finally, he did not hide his contempt for most of the opposition parties.

So, where should we start? In Demszky’s opinion, the candidate for the job of lord mayor of Budapest must not promise much to the electorate because under the circumstances the city is entirely at the mercy of the central government. The situation was also bad during the first Orbán government between 1998 and 2002, but then at least the city still had some assets. By now, the city has been stripped of all its former wealth as well as its autonomy. What we have now, instead of self-government, is “a modernized form of the council system” that existed in the Kádár regime.

Yet the role of the mayor of Budapest is an important one because the post can be used as a bully pulpit, which gives the mayor an opportunity to represent the opposition toward the central government. He will have to act as a kind of ombudsman who stands up for the interests not only of the inhabitants of Budapest but of all citizens. The mayor of Budapest can have a powerful voice, which gives the man who holds the position political leverage. If the next mayor is a spokesman for the opposition, he might be able to challenge Viktor Orbán for the premiership four years later. And it is only Lajos Bokros who would be able to do that. After all, he once saved the country from bankruptcy. He is an internationally known economist who is strong enough to take up the fight against the mafia state.

Lajos Bokros and Gáboe Demszky at the book launch of Hungarian Octopus, vol. 2

Lajos Bokros and Gábor Demszky at the book launch of Hungarian Octopus, vol. 2

At this point Eszter Rádai reminded Demszky that Viktor Orbán in this case would make a second Esztergom out of Budapest. Esztergom is the place where an independent mayor was chosen instead of the Fidesz candidate for mayor in 2010. The city was punished for it. Not a penny came from the central government to rescue the city that had become hopelessly indebted under Fidesz management in the previous years. Demszky’s answer was that Viktor Orbán did the same thing with Budapest between 1998 and 2002 and yet it was Budapest that won the election for the opposition in 2002. Demszky is not exaggerating. I remember vividly that Fidesz was leading all through the early hours when the votes were pouring in from outside of Budapest but then the late Budapest results started coming in and suddenly everything changed. Fidesz lost the election. Viktor Orbán certainly did not forget the disloyalty of the city.

The conversation moved on to the opposition. In Demszky’s opinion, “the opposition is an integral part of this regime” and all of its sins because it has not stood behind its twenty years of democratic achievements. Since it is not ready to take responsibility for its past, it does not have a future either. It accepts the Fidesz narrative of the “muddled twenty years of transition,” the way Viktor Orbán likes to describe the period between 1990 and 2010. This is the greatest sin a political opposition can commit in confronting a dictatorship. Giving up the praise of democracy and freedom. It denies its most important tradition, liberalism. In fact, the leaders of the opposition want to free themselves of the liberals. The opposition parties “only act as if they are the representatives of the democratic opposition while they have nothing to do with either democracy or opposition.”

Out of the five opposition parties Demszky considers three to be Fidesz appendices: Jobbik, MSZP, and LMP. I guess the relationship of Jobbik and LMP to the governing party does not need further elaboration, but I think MSZP’s inclusion in this category does. In Demszky’s opinion MSZP is not really a party of the left. It never was. The MSZP leaders united only to grab power, but once they lost it they became helpless. That leaves only two parties, Demokratikus Koalíció and Együtt-PM, that Demszky considers bona fide opposition parties. Együtt-PM is so small and weak that it cannot be taken seriously while DK will be, in his opinion, unsuccessful in the long run because it is led by Ferenc Gyurcsány, who is the most divisive politician of the opposition. Gyurcsány is correct when he emphasizes the necessity of a unified opposition party, but one needs more than that.

Those who believe that the Orbán government and its mafia state can be removed by ordinary parliamentary elections are wrong. Naturally, Demszky does not advocate the violent overthrow of the government, but he recommends civil disobedience. One should study Mahatma Gandhi as the Polish opposition did in the 1980s. One must realize that Orbán’s regime ruined the constitutional order, took away political and individual rights, and ruined democratic institutions. The present political system has thus been rendered illegitimate. One needs more than a change of government; just as after Kádár, Hungary needs a regime change.

Demszky admits that at present very few people are ready to stand against the regime openly, but he is convinced that the situation will get to the point that people in large numbers will be ready to resort to civil disobedience. Poverty will only grow and, although at present there are no political prisoners, there will be. Dissatisfaction with the regime will grow. Demszky excludes the possibility of Fidesz’s tight ranks breaking up under the weight of outside pressure: “what holds these people together is power and fear because they know that they could lose everything. They put all their money on one card.”

I think most of us can agree with Gábor Demszky–and Bálint Magyar–that the opposition must concentrate on regime change because by now Viktor Orbán’s system has solidified into a full-fledged regime that Magyar calls a post-communist mafia state. Many of Hungarian Spectrum‘s readers, to judge from the comments, have a very low opinion of MSZP and few believe in its survival. However, when it comes to Lajos Bokros’s role in the regime change, few would bet on him as a contender to replace Viktor Orbán as prime minister of Hungary. Not because he would not be an outstanding prime minister but because a political career cannot be built without a viable political party and Bokros at least at this moment does not have such a party behind him.

But when it comes to Demszky’s main thesis about the illegitimacy of this government and Orbán’s state he is certainly right. The opposition forces should pay serious attention to this fact. As long as they collaborate with the government and with Fidesz in parliament they only help to ensure the survival of the regime.

Maiming the Hungarian constitution: Is the Orbán government willing to pay the price?

While opposition politicians are unable to agree on any meaningful joint action and the so-called intellectual class is deeply divided, the Orbán government is merrily proceeding with its plans to rewrite the new constitution. According to constitutional experts, if the latest amendments are voted into law Hungary will be without a valid constitution.

There was only one group that was ready to take things into their own hands. They decided to engage in civil disobedience. Since ordinary opposition gatherings are not even reported in the public media, tightly controlled by the government, they decided to do something that was guaranteed to get media coverage. They climbed a fence and settled in the courtyard of the Fidesz party headquarters. There they sat  for ten hours and repeated a few slogans. Mostly: “Constitution, Freedom” and “We protest the destruction of the constitutional system of the Hungarian Republic.”

The organizers of the Peace March, András Bencsik and Zsolt Bayer, immediately counterattacked. On Facebook they called on their followers to come and teach a thing or two to these little “Bolsheviks.” And they arrived. Someone described “the fruitful political dialogue” this way:

Youngsters: “We protest the destruction of the constitutional system of the Hungarian Republic.” And here are some of the answers from “the peace guardists”: “Do you want to have some acid in your face?” “Get lost and work!” “I’ll slap you on the face, you rat!” “Rotten, lousy communist stooge!” “Go to Moscow!” “Filthy f…ing Jews!” “Stupid fag!” “Come on out, if you dare, you little queers!”  That will give you an idea about the Fidesz fans who gathered in the name of Christian love and peace.

Here is our gentleman who threatened a young man with acid:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpR87Bjqe2M

Perhaps the officials inside the building no longer trust the police because they were ordered to retire after a while. “Volunteers”  arrived to save the building and those inside it from the peaceful demonstrators. Most of them came from the notorious Fradi (Ferencváros) fan club. One of the volunteers spent ten years in jail for murder and now serves as a “coordinator” for the fan club. The football hooligans physically tried to remove the protesters. Eventually the demonstrators left on their own but not before some of them climbed a wall and positioned themselves on a balcony. The clever student leaders began reciting Fidesz’s 1989 party program which was full of liberal demands. The counter-protesters naturally had no idea that what they were screaming at was really Victor Orbán, their idol.

Older women were especially vocal. They simply couldn’t understand what the protesters were complaining about. How can they be dissatisfied when at last the country has a “good government”? One woman, obviously a pensioner, claimed that it is her money that these students are wasting.

One really has to be deaf and blind to claim that the small crowd that gathered in the courtyard of the Fidesz headquarters was “rabble” as Péter Boros, prime minister of Hungary for a few months after József Antall’s death in 1993-1994, did. Interestingly enough, he had nothing to say about the behavior of the counter-protesters. One can get a vivid picture of the Fidesz crowd by watching this video:

But perhaps the most shocking and most telling example of the mindset of the peace marchers and Orbán supporters is a very professionally executed banner. On it one can see practically all the important MSZP politicians in addition to Ferenc Gyurcsány, Gordon Bajnai, Lajos Bokros, and András Simor. The banner reads: “The nation is in mourning! It suffers from the presence of traitors.”  In Hungarian it has even more punch: “Gyászol a nemzet! Hazaárulóktól szenved!”  Just think about this horrendous statement. I don’t know whether the people actually know what they are saying, because from this banner it is clear that what they want is a one-party system. The opposition has no right to exist. In fact, they should be eliminated as traitors used to be. Perhaps hanged.

The nation is in mourning! It is suffering from the presence of traitors / Népszabadság Árpád Kurucz

The nation is in mourning! It is suffering from the presence of traitors / Népszabadság Árpád Kurucz

Yesterday’s protest was laudable in many ways. Take, for instance, the poise and dignity of the protesters. As you can see on the video, the young man didn’t lose his cool despite repeated physical and verbal abuse. Second, their protest lasted over ten hours. At the beginning they were alone, but once word got out about the gathering others joined them. By the time the demonstrators decided to walk over to the building of the Constitutional Court their numbers had swelled to about 1,000. By contrast, the counter-demonstrators got tired of screaming and their numbers decreased fairly rapidly.

The football hooligans of Gábor Kubatov’s Ferencváros football team, I think we can now say with conviction, are in the employ of Fidesz. Not necessarily in the sense of having paid positions but in being ready to assist “their party”  if necessary. Certainly, someone from the building called on them. One can’t help thinking of the storming of the public television station by Fradi football hooligans.

And finally, the protesters are determined to continue their fight for democracy, the constitution, and the rule of law. Moreover, they seem to have realized that without parties they cannot be successful. At their next demonstration tomorrow parties are welcome.

And, in a critical turn of events, the European Union and the Council of Europe are also waking up to the harsh reality in Hungary. I already wrote about German Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Michael Link’s warning letter in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung a few days ago. I was sure at that time that something was brewing in Germany. And, indeed, today ” in a statement reflecting deep seated anxiety at the direction Orbán is taking Hungary, Germany and three other EU countries called for Brussels to be given new power allowing it to freeze EU budget funds to a member state in breach of Europe’s ‘fundamental values.'” The three other countries are the Netherlands, Denmark, and Finland. Since then we found out from the spokesman of the European Commission that José Manuel Barroso phoned Viktor Orbán this morning and warned the Hungarian prime minister that the proposed changes in the Hungarian constitution are not only incompatible with the rule of law but also might violate laws of the European Union. Following the conversation Barroso sent a letter in which he summarized the points he made during the telephone conversation.

I should also mention that today we learned that President János Ader will be in Berlin on Monday and Tuesday next week. On Monday he will meet President Joachim Gauck. Tuesday his first trip will be to Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle followed by a conversation with Chancellor Angela Merkel. Some might say that this trip was arranged some time ago and has nothing to do with the current brouhaha over the Hungarian constitution. Perhaps, but I find it odd that the president of Hungary has an appointment with the German foreign minister. I doubt that this is normal protocol. My hunch is that although the trip might have been arranged earlier, the meeting with Westerwelle was added only recently. But this is only a guess on my part.