Hungary's university protests, a path for change?
By Eszter Zalan
Hungary has seen continuing protests over the last week that have morphed into mass protests against prime minister Viktor Orban’s government.
They started out as rallies aimed at protecting the Soros-founded Central European University (CEU) that has been targeted by a new legislation, but now the stakes are higher. It is still unlikely however that they will shake Orban’s rule.
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Orban has been centralising his power since taking office for the second time in 2010, but there were few occasions massive numbers of demonstrators took to the streets to stop his power-grabbing measures, let alone have those protests sustain for days.
The one time Orban has backed off because of a protest was in 2014, when reportedly over 50,000 people took to the streets of Budapest to rally against a proposed tax on the internet.
While some, like teachers and other public sector workers, are afraid to go to the protests for fear of losing their jobs, the demonstration the previous Sunday (10 April) in support of the Budapest-based Central European University had tens of thousands show up. It was one of the largest protests during Orban’s seven-year rule.
It served as a valve to let out more general frustrations with the government, summed up in the chant: “We have had enough!” That gave way to an unprecedented protest momentum, that is not sure where to go next.
By targeting a university, Orban has managed to anger a politically usually invisible crowd, Hungary’s youth.
A significantly older crowd, some of them strongly associated with the weak opposition Socialist party or other smaller opposition parties, has mostly been at the core of most of Hungary’s anti-government protests so far.
This time it is different with protestors as young as teenagers chanting angry slogans at the government. The younger crowd has gave way to funnier and bolder signs that resonate with a larger audience.
It also led to some of the protests ending up in spontaneous techno parties in downtown Budapest, blocking traffic, with crowds chanting political slogans to the throbbing beat.
And that is not to be underestimated, as a speaker at one of the protests recalled.
"Today there is no one within the Hungarian state who would say, this cannot be done,” Stefania Kapronczay, the executive director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, one of the NGOs targeted by a new legislation, told a crowd of thousands last Wednesday.
“We live in a country, where dissent is dangerous,” she added.
On Saturday (15 April), thousands partied at a rally in Liberty Square against the government.
Europe vs. Russia
The demonstrators in Hungary are concerned that Orban’s continued propaganda battle against Brussels risks the country’s European future.
One of the most iconic scenes of the recent protests was when a girl climbed up the Hungarian radio’s building behind police lines to place an EU flag on the building.
Every public institution should have an EU flag, however in Hungary even the Parliament is missing them.
Referring to Orban’s mock “national consultation” with voters, which he called “Let’s stop Brussels”, the slogan “Let’s stop Orban” has become the mantra at the demonstrations.
Protestors chanted “Europe, Europe!” regularly, while the slogan from the 1956 uprising against the Soviet rule, "Russki go home!” also featured at the demos.
The protestors are concerned that Orban has become a puppet of Russian president Vladimir Putin, and that the EU will do little to stop Hungary’s slippage out of the European community.
Hungary’s media has always been divided along politically ideological lines. But the protests have shown a wide schism between what is now a pro-government media machine, aided by a public media under full state control, and an independent, or at least critical, media aligned with a businessman now at odds with his old ally, Orban.
In Hungary, fake news is created by the pro-government media.
Public and pro-government media outlets have been busy downplaying the size of the crowds and accusing the participants of accepting airplane tickets financed by billionaire George Soros to transport them to the rallies. No evidence of such a Soros scheme was ever produced.
The absurdity of that statement has become one of the slogans of the demonstrations: “I came by plane!”
Pro-government media also attempted to discredit one of the young activist, Marton Gulyas, sentenced to communal work for throwing a box of paint at the presidential palace at a demonstration last week, by saying he has visited a gay dating site after the protests.
They later sent out questions to critical media outlets asking how does Hungarian billionaire George Soros influence their work, and if their staff have ever attended the “Soros University”, CEU.
What will the protests bring?
It is yet unclear how the new street momentum will be transformed into political power. None of the opposition parties have been visible at the demonstrations. Gulyas has suggested fighting for a fairer election system in time for next year’s poll. But it is unclear if protestors will make that their main issue.
Hungary’s government has so far been unable to remove the cheerful protestors, who clean up trash after themselves and are polite with the police. Viktor Orban warned over Easter weekend in a radio interview that the “hands of peaceful Christian people are itching” to strike the protestors.
He said the protestors are financed by George Soros, who - Orban claimed - supports bringing migrants into Europe. Orban also warned that there will be a major showdown with Brussels by June, as the EU wants to impose asylum rules on member countries.