Ides of March

DSC_0643March 15: national holiday in Hungary commemorating the outbreak of the 1848 revolution against Habsburg domination. Along with October 23, the national holiday commemorating the outbreak of the 1956 revolution against Soviet domination, the most important date on the country’s annual political calendar (see The Soft White Underbelly).

All the parties are active, their leaders hold speeches at various places throughout the center of Budapest. Politically involved citizens of the city are out and about, showing support for their side, checking out the adversary, curious to see what scandal and outrage this year’s happenings will produce.

2014: the FideszChristian Democratic People’s Party alliance is three weeks away from another landslide election victory. The only question is whether Prime Minister Viktor Orbán will get another super majority in the National Assembly, again giving him the power to implement his legislative agenda without impediment. All else is simply detail: how much will Jobbik gain, how much will the democratic opposition lose? Will Politics Can Be Different even get into parliament?

DSC_0576Across the Franz Joseph Bridge by bike, Orange Files rides toward the annual state commemoration at the National Museum, where Petőfi read his “National Song” at the start of the 1848 revolt. On Kálvin Square only red and white Polish flags: the Law and Justice weekly Gazeta Polska has organized another Great Trip to Hungary to show support for Prime Minister Orbán, just as it did for the second pro-government Peace March in 2012. Images of Pope John Paul II, the Kaczyński twins, banners in Polish, anti-EU signs in English, men in military uniforms, from the Polish-Soviet War perhaps?

Are they aware of Orbán’s rapprochement with Russia?

Through the main gate to the steps of the National Museum to get a good photograph of Orbán. His security has become much tighter than it used to be—it is no longer easy to get a good close-up of him. Standing in the crowd, camera in hand: a bellicose patriotic poem shouted in a shrill voice; a pop version of the “National Song” and some folk dancing; then down the stairs strides the short and girthy prime minister, right on past—dammit!—across a ramp to a platform overlooking Museum Avenue for his speech.

Excuse me, thank you, excuse me, thank you—press back out through the crowd to Museum Avenue, the speech begun in his throaty, constricted voice, a variation of the same one he has given a hundred times before: life and death struggle, identifying the enemies, always in danger, Labanc, Muscovites, global capital: “The weak and cowardly are no longer dealt into the game.”

DSC_0605Something interesting: a copse of orange flags with the heads of Orbán and Putin side by side. A dozen silent protesters, those around them shouting occasional threats and epithets.

“The word ‘utility-fee cut’ would not look good in the National Song, but it is easy to see that just as today the reduction of unjust and inequitable burdens was for them [the 1848 revolutionaries] the first and most important task.” 

“Hungary is the most unified country in Europe.”

Orbán makes no direct reference to the upcoming elections. He doesn’t need to because he knows he’s going to win, and win big.

The speech is over, the protesters furl their Orbán-Putin flags and give a short interview to a German-speaking reporter through an interpreter. They say they are associated with Bajnai. One of them has a bloody lip.

By bike toward Lajos Kossuth Street, cannot even find the Politics Can Be Different assembly. The sky is turning oddly overcast, the dust and refuse of spring swirls in puffs of warm breeze.

DSC_0626The Polish march past, there are a couple hundred young people lined up along the sidewalk wearing orange, red and green t-shirts and holding well-made signs that say “Vote Against Jobbik!” They say they are a Facebook group, but nobody seems to know who paid for all the shirts and signs. Fidesz has turned its sights away from the foundering  democratic opposition toward Jobbik in order to protect its two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. 

Coffee with an old friend and then the surprise of the day: the democratic opposition has cancelled its assembly due to expected high winds. Organizers in fluorescent vests announce the news on bullhorns. Lajos Kossuth Street is reopened to vehicle traffic. 

Just when you think it can’t get any worse, they find some way to sink even lower. The reason for the cancellation is not really rain and wind: it is that they have nothing to say, no hope in the elections, no reason for being in their present form. Gábor Fodor and the liberals are down at the Petőfi statue for a separate gathering. There are about a hundred people holding blue flags bearing the image of Lajos Kossuth. Fodor looks tired as he chats with elderly supporters, like he wishes he were somewhere else. 

JobbikOver to the Jobbik assembly on Deák Square. Almost everybody in black; cracked and distorted faces, it has the feel of one-third penitentiary, one-third insane asylum and one-third school for the mentally challenged. The New Hungarian Guard is there. Vona, Előd Novák and the rest are there. At least they have the mettle to withstand a little stormy weather. They know where they want to go and are committed to getting there. And they just might do it.

A billow of red, white and green balloons rises into the air and dissipates slowly into the heavy gray clouds above.  

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Notes from the Carnival Ball

DSC_0379Carnival ball (farsangi bál) at the community cultural house in one of the old Swabian towns on the outskirts of Budapest. 

A couple of hundred people, most of them 60 and older, sitting at long tables before a dinner of red cabbage and fried meat dumplings. Everybody is dressed up, almost all the men wear suits and ties. They watch a trio perform a variety of music in the shadowy hall, from German oompha to Hungarian and American pop hits from the 60s and 70s.    

They watch young people perform a waltz. The performers then select partners from among the spectators. Instantly other couples join and the floor is full of shining bald heads and white hair turning to the music. 

The music stops, the couples sit, the mayor stands for a speech. A proficient public speaker, confident, fluent, well-told anecdotes, a single political reference to the event as a needed distraction from the mounting tension of “public life.” 

All heads are turned in the same direction, listening intently to the town father. Conservative folk, many of them of German descent. Disciplined, practical, hard-working people, they are cultured to an equal or greater degree than their equivalents in the West, though are more linguistically isolated and less able to understand the greater world around them. 

Members of a small and vulnerable nation seeking community with those of the same language and background, looking for unaffected pre-System Change companionship in a crass post-System Change world.  

Rock-solid Orbán supporters, they will follow him through thick and thin as he turns Hungary back toward the East, as he wages populist battle against the European Union, as he dismantles the country’s democracy and takes control over their sources of information in order to create a highly centralized, semi-authoritarian state.  

It is a state in which they feel comfortable: secure under a strong leader fighting in the interest of the Hungarian nation against foreign predators and their domestic accomplices, one who has defended them against the manipulations and exploitation of the free-market and ensured their basic subsistence through cuts in the cost of household gas, electricity, heating and water. 

Friendly people. Generous people. Benevolent people, though inherently suspicious of the motives of outsiders.

This demographic—nominally anti-communist, though nevertheless uniformly nostalgic for the monolithic simplicity and unfailing continuity of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party dictatorship—has abandoned the affinity it once felt for the ideals of western liberal democracy. As one of the most powerful constituencies in an aging population, it will provide the Orbán administration with a steady base of support well into the 2020s. 

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The Soft White Underbelly

The pro-Orbán Peace March crosses Margaret Bridge in Budapest

The Peace March crosses Margaret Bridge.

Party events in Budapest on the October 23 anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution confirmed what everybody already knew: the Orbán government has managed to maintain the overwhelming support that propelled the FideszChristian Democratic People’s Party alliance to a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly in 2010.

 The fourth pro-government Peace March (Békemenet) again drew an enormous crowd, perhaps up to 300,000 people. Orange Files observed the beginning of the march perched on a lamppost on Margaret Bridge: the broad column of pro-government marchers stretched nearly a mile from the Buda end of the bridge around a bend in the approaching street and down the road running parallel to the Danube River.

One of the main organizers of the Peace Marches, pro-government journalist Gábor Bencsik, warned marchers not to react to possible opposition provocation as they proceeded down the Grand Boulevard and up Andrássy Avenue to Heroes’ Square to listen to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán give a speech.

The rumor circulating among the crowd of conservative common folk, a large proportion of them from the provinces, was that naked women planned to storm the march at some point along the route.

The united opposition rally in front of the Budapest Technical University

The united opposition rally in front of the Budapest Technical University

Orange Files let the tide of Peace Marchers flow past, then rode down the Danube to the Budapest Technical University to check out the unified opposition October 23 demonstration, arriving just in time to hear the crowd chanting “Orbán Get Out!” (Orbán takarodj!) and former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány speaking ardently about the need for cooperation among the factious left-wing and liberal parties. There must have been around 25,000-30,000 people squeezed into the street between the university and the Danube, roughly one-tenth the number of people who participated in the pro-government march.

András Schiffer and Politics Can Be Different (LMP) did not participate in the united opposition demonstration, holding the party’s October 23 rally at the public cemetery in the outskirts of Pest where many of those executed for their roles in the 1956 Revolution are buried, including revolutionary Prime Minster Imre Nagy. The cemetery was too far away to reach by bicycle, though the Index.hu video reveals that attendance was sparse (see source in Hungarian). 

Orange Files then went to Deák Square to get a head count at the Jobbik demonstration: about 5,000, maybe 6,000 people under a forest of Árpád-striped and Jobbik flags, a few of them in black-and-white paramilitary uniforms of the New Hungarian Guard

Jobbik rally on Deák Square

Jobbik rally on Deák Square

Finally up Andrássy Avenue to hear the Orbán speech on Heroes’ Square. What a glorious fall day it was in Budapest, a warm wind blowing leaves across the avenue shut off to vehicle traffic and wide open to bicycles. However, the pro-government demonstration was so big that it stretched back down Andrássy Avenue nearly a half mile from the square. No hope of getting through the crowd to hear Orbán speak.

But it didn’t really matter. The main lesson of the day was not in the words of the various party leaders, but in the size of the crowds that showed up to hear them. Fidesz won this contest by a large margin, just as it will win the 2014 national elections by a large margin and maybe even gain another two-thirds majority in the National Assembly.

This is what the Hungarian people wants. And in spite of all the measures the Orbán administration has taken to curtail democracy and civil liberties in Hungary, the elections that bring it back to power will be free and fair, an accurate expression of national political will.

 This is what the people wants—good old fashioned Hungarian Christian-nationalism, the 21st-century version of the Horthy régime; this is what most Hungarian citizens will think they want right up until the day they realize (and not for the first time) that what they really want is to be part of the liberal-democratic West and not the authoritarian East. But by then it might be too late to turn back.

The events in Budapest on October 23 showed one thing very clearly: that in a state under the control of a skilled demagogue such as Prime Minister Orbán, the will of the common man can become the greatest enemy to the political system that is designed to serve him.

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Testament to Weakness

IMG_2689About 1,500 people showed up to the square between the foot of Castle Hill and the head of the Chain Bridge in Budapest on Sunday, September 29, to watch one of Hungary’s many opposition groups pull down a model statue of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

The average age of the crowd was about 55. The rapper Dopeman was the master of ceremonies, while Together 2014 leader and former prime minister Gordon Bajnai and some other minor opposition figures gave speeches in which they castigated Orbán in roughly the same coarse language as the current prime minister used to castigate Gyurcsány and Bajnai when he was in opposition.

“The fish stinks from the head,” Bajnai said. Bajnai’s subsequent comparison of the Orbán government to the communists did not excite the audience members, many of whom were themselves presumably members of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party. Several of the speakers used the Orbánian opposition mantra “they lie, they steal, they cheat” (hazudnak, lopnak, csalnak). Dopeman called Orbán a “pile of trash” (szemétláda). He also sang a version of the Hungarian national anthem interspersed with the refrain “Fuck the Government! Fuck Orbán!” (Bazd meg a kormányt! Bazd meg Orbánt!). The elderly crowd clapped politely after the number.

IMG_2694Toppling the roughly 12-foot statue, which was molded and painted very skillfully to represent the Stalin statue pulled down in Budapest at the beginning of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, was the highlight of the event. The statue was erected on a protruding part of the exterior wall at the entry of the tunnel passing under Castle Hill. The neck and the legs above the heavy boots were cut most of the way through from behind so it would break at those places. Dopeman threw a coil of rope tied around the statue at the other end into the crowd among a bunch of old ladies who didn’t know what to do with it. The statue came down suddenly, the photo missed. Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana sounded dramatically from the PA system. The Orbán-Stalin head rolled along the pavement, right to Dopeman, who gave it hard football kick. The boots remained on the pedestal just as planned, just as in ’56. Men hoisted the headless torso onto a truck and led a procession across the Chain Bridge to the House of Terror, where they planned to deposit the broken statue.

See Index.hu video of falling Orbán statue. 

See Orange Files photo gallery of the event.

IMG_2699

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Butting Heads with the Wonder Deer

A late-summer garden party in a town on the outskirts of Budapest. 

250px-Csodaszarvas.svgA middle-aged couple standing under an apple tree in the half dark, away from the row of tables where the other guests are eating stew prepared in a bogrács, a traditonal Hungarian cooking pot. 

She: Did you see what Éva is wearing? How tacky. It reminds me of Republican taste in the United States. 

He: I’ve got to think that from an intelligent person like her it must be intentional. You know, the principle that something that is in really poor taste actually becomes beautiful again. The part I didn’t like was the Wonder Deer [Csodaszarvas] hanging on her neck. 

She: That part didn’t bother me. I really love ancient symbolism. 

He: The problem is who else really loves it. The anti-Semitic, anti-Gypsy, anti-West, anti-democracy, anti-capitalist people. They have taken these ancient Hungarian symbols,  yurts and archery and horses, and made them into something ugly. 

She: I don’t care. For me they don’t mean those things. 

He: Maybe for you they don’t, but for me and I would dare to say most Hungarians they do, whether they approve of those things or not. 

She: That is what I hate about politics. It ruins everything. 

They look at one another coldly. One of those reemerging disagreements. 

Note: The Wonder Deer is an animal from the mythology of the ancient Hungarians and other central Asian peoples.

 

csodaszarvas(2)

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