September 25, 2006

Yearning for Change in Hungary

After three days of clashes with the police, the end of the week seems to have finished on a peaceful note. The nightly battles suddenly stopped on Thursday evening, and Friday was also witness to a night of silence. Although it looks as if calm has returned once again to the streets of Budapest, there is nevertheless an undercurrent of anger, frustration, and disappointment. Meanwhile, on the political front, pundits and politicians have already begun the blame game and are positioning themselves in order to milk what they can from the situation.

At the same time, a virtual reign of terror appears to have descended on the Hungarian capital. True, the original demonstration in front of parliament continues, as well as other smaller ones throughout the country. However, aside from these few places, the right of protest, and more importantly, the right to dissent, seems to have been sacrificed for fear of violence. Consequently, various university campuses throughout Budapest were closed during the week. Planned rallies and demonstrations were also cancelled, including an annual rally of bicycles down a main street in central Budapest to celebrate Car Free Day, an EU sponsored event. Meanwhile, along the main boulevard that encircles the city, shops closed early. Even McDonalds had closed its doors by late evening.

For many, it's quite odd how the violence which had plagued Hungary for the past few nights had suddenly stopped. Many believe that the disturbances were actually orchestrated. Some blame the political opposition. Others blame Prime Minister Gyurcsany, noting that he was able to quash dissent, one the one hand, and to divert attention from the Convergence Program on the other.

Anatomy of a Protest
As people try to make sense of the past week in Budapest, it's disconcerting how the violent demonstrations have all been lumped together as if they were all somehow one and the same. A feeble attempt even had been made to try to besmirch the original, peaceful protest in front of parliament, but that attempt quickly went nowhere. However, what has succeeded was to group all three nights of violent protest as one, when in reality they were two separate types carried out by two distinct groups.

Those involved in the violence on Tuesday and Wednesday nights were clearly of a different motivation than the massive crowd which attacked the television building on Monday evening. Not only was the crowd noticeably smaller (only one or two hundred compared to the thousands on Monday) they were mostly young and the percentage of skinheads among them was much greater. In fact, it was a crowd typically seen at football matches. The graffiti was also noticeably different: whereas on Monday evening most of the words which were spray-painted compared the police with the AVH (the former secret police from the Stalinist era), the graffiti of Tuesday and Wednesday evenings were primarily anarchist in nature, a typical one being "No power for anyone" followed by the A enclosed in a circle.

The attack on the television building on Monday night, although it was violent and contained many instances of senseless vandalism and theft, nevertheless had a different tone altogether than what happened the following two nights. The crowd included many who had felt that the authorities acted inappropriately by not allowing a petition to be submitted and broadcast. Also, many protesters claim that the police actually started it all by provoking the crowd when objects were thrown at the protesters from the upper floors.

If the ultimate objective of the violence was to quash dissent, then it certainly worked. Many groups and organizations which had planned demonstrations to protest against certain aspects of the government's reform package -- some of them planned as far back as a month in advance -- suddenly cancelled their events for fear of violence. For instance, the Students National Conference, which had previously planned a huge demonstration in Budapest, subsequently cancelled their gathering because of security fears. Instead, they plan to hold their demonstration in October, after the elections and the official acceptance of the government's reform packages. At this time, however, it will be too late, as the educational reforms they will be protesting against will have become a fait accompli by then.

Likewise, most parties who had planned to hold some kind of rally ended up canceling their events. Among them was the main opposition party, the FIDESZ, which had one planned for Saturday. The reason for doing so, as with other groups and organizations, was the fear of violence. The police had said they had information about a bomb plot at the rally. Oddly enough, this was the exact same type of "information" they had about six months ago when fear of violence was used to cancel a political rally during the national election campaign. Even more strange is when the FIDESZ wanted to discuss possible security arrangements, the police didn't show up for the meeting.

As with all groups, organizations, and parties which planned to hold some sort of rally or demonstration, the police had made it clear that it was the organizers of the event -- and not the police -- who were responsible for ensuring security at the event. As a result, since none were obviously capable of doing so, the only option left was to cancel or postpone.

This attitude on the part of the police, however, is contrary to the Helsinki Accords, in where the security arrangements at a demonstration is the specific responsibility of the police. The organizers of an event are only responsible for not inciting the crowd to violence. That other elements may join in and cause trouble is not their responsibility, but that of the police; they are supposed to protect protesters and to make sure any troublemakers are isolated and prevented from causing any trouble.

That the police have been unwilling to guarantee security at an event, and have even subtlety threatened organizers by putting the responsibility for public security on their shoulders, raises serious questions as to the true role of the police during the past week. Indeed, the police have come under increasing criticism for the way they have handled the entire situation.

Questions remain, for instance, as to how and why they were so drastically "unprepared" during the events on Monday evening. Most of the police officers in the front line were green recruits brought up from the countryside; they had little training and were specifically ill-equipped with flimsy plexi-shields that aren't usually used. Most of the injuries sustained by the police were because these shields easily broke. Furthermore, being young and inexperienced, they had little or no training on how to handle such a huge and angry crowd; thus, many ended up being disarmed.

It was a totally different story on the following two nights. The police were suddenly very well prepared, both tactically and in terms of equipment. They were also much more brutal; many innocent people were arrested and roughly treated. It seems an unprepared and inexperienced force was deliberately used on the first night to handle a large and angry crowd; the two following nights had the professionals out in full force to deal with a small band of troublemakers.

For the young and often terrified officers put in the front line on Monday night, it would seem that a class action suit is in order, especially for those who were injured as a result. Their superiors need to answer some tough and serious questions about that fateful night -- about not only why they were there but why they were given shoddy equipment.

For the moment, however, the police are on a propaganda offensive. The differences between Monday and the two following nights has been glossed over and used to show how the police were able to quickly clamp down on the troublemakers, noting the number of arrests. Two youths were served up as an example of how fast and efficient the police had suddenly become. The only problem here was the youths in question were two drunken teenagers who happened to be walking in the area where the street violence had taken place and were simply arrested for disturbing the peace. They both received a three-day prison sentence and were promptly released.

Playing Politics
Over the past week it's clear that political parties in Hungary were running scared. The view of Hungary's political elites is that in a democracy people have no right to engage in street politics. Little do they realize that this is the very essence of a democracy. Moreover, people also should have the right to change their government at will if the government has lost all sense of legitimacy. This not only happened in Portugal, but on several occasions in France it was the people who dictated government policy and not the other way around -- as the protests last year clearly showed. To limit the democratic freedoms of the general public to an election only once every four years is not democracy, but a benevolent form of dictatorship.

Unfortunately, as soon as it became clear that the protests and violence were under control, it was politics as usual. Each party tried to interpret events to its own advantage. Moreover, each side ended up blaming the other for the violence. Also, whenever the violent protests were referred to, they were often transformed from small disturbances limited to Budapest (and only to a small area within the city) to somehow include the entire country.

The conservative MDF was perhaps the most virulent in this case. The party is still trying to maintain its political existence by playing one major party off the other, regardless of which side of the political spectrum it's on. Hence, it often pursues objectives that are often contrary to its own objectives and interests. A case in point was when the party leader, Ibolya David, during a television interview, said that what was needed was for the prime minister to apologize, a sudden shift from when she stated firmly two days previous that the prime minister must resign. At the same time, as a quick stab to the main opposition party, she said that the FIDESZ should call its people from the streets, as if everything has been organized and initiated by the FIDESZ.

The ruling Socialists, meanwhile, caused a stir when it was revealed that they initiated a program to photograph and film participants at demonstrations. The privacy commissioner voiced his concern that the filming and documenting of participants contravened privacy laws and were a violation of a person's rights.

Indubitably, there has been increasing attempts by the FIDESZ to co-opt the demonstrations for its own purposes. This is a tragedy in more than ways than one. Firstly, it sidelines many on the left who feel that Gyurcsany should resign because his comments were not only insulting, but raise certain questions as to his legitimacy. Miklos Tamas Gaspar, a leading left-wing philosopher, as well as Istvan Stumpf, a left-of-center political analyst, are two well-known examples of those on the left who believe that Gyurcsany must go. They also feel that people have the right to feel angry and protest, although like many others they condemn the violence.

There is no doubt that many on the left feel betrayed and let down by the prime minister, while for those on the right his comments merely reinforce what had been felt for so long. Unfortunately, the problem with a de facto two-party political system, as there now is in Hungary, is that no viable alternative exists. Many on the left thus feel isolated, while those on the right feel cheated. To make matters worse, by viewing the protests as simply a disgruntled right-wing demonstration, any form of solidarity between different groups is lost, and the whole episode breaks down as a general squabble between left and right.

The only chance for the protests to gain some sort of political leverage is if not only those on the different sides of the political spectrum come together, but different sectors of society also take part. In other words, there is a need for strike action and various forms of civil disobedience, all individually organized but with a common purpose. While in the countryside some demonstrations were called off because of telephone threats, a few actions did take place, namely the blocking of roads. Still, those most affected by the lies and deceptions of the prime minister -- school teachers, health professionals, farmers, students, small, and medium sized businesses -- failed to take appropriate action and have so far stayed on the sidelines. Individuals may have taken part, but what is missing is for whole groups, especially the unions, to take action. It is only when protests become networked and a certain amount of paralysis sets in does the full force of "people power" makes itself felt.

Foreign Pressure and Propaganda
Over the past week, anyone trying to travel to Hungary, in particular Budapest, may have found a hard time getting to the country from abroad. Journalists suddenly flocked to the capital; as a result, all flights to Budapest were booked. Those journalists not lucky enough to reserve a seat were forced to make their way by train or other means.

As events quickly unfolded, it soon became clear that outside of Hungary various groupings took sides on whether Gyurcsany should resign or whether he should hold firm. This was best exemplified by the two main factions within the EU parliament, with one side calling for the prime minister to resign immediately and the other offering its moral support to the embattled Hungarian leader.

As far as neo-liberalist politicians and the corporate media are concerned, now that Hungary has let off a little steam, it's time for the country to get serious once again. Indeed, a hint of bias in support for the government could be detected in the reporting of several leading mainstream media outlets.

In Europe, Deutsche Welle made several errors, such as when it noted how Gyurcsany's popularity slipped from 40 percent to 35 percent -- this despite the fact that the prime minister's rating is widely acknowledged to be at 20 percent or lower. Also, when news came out that the FIDESZ had decided to cancel its political rally that was planned for Saturday, it was reported that the main opposition party's "anti-government" demonstration had been cancelled. The rally was not an "anti-government" demonstration; it was a party rally planned before the events of the past week. In fact, it was set to take place during the last weekend before the vote. That the events of the past week happened to coincide with this rally, and that the rally would no doubt take into account recent events, in no way means it was an anti-government rally. The Deutsche Welle news report, however, left the impression that the FIDESZ was an organizer of sorts in the anti-government demonstrations taking place in Budapest.

In a similar fashion, the BBC at times tended to obscure the true nature of the demonstrations taking place. In one report shortly after the attack on the television building on Monday evening, BBC World reported how the people were protesting against the government's economic policies. Here again, the report was a little misleading: the protests generally are not about economics, but the content and language of the prime minister's secret speech at the end of May in which he admitted they had lied to the people over the past year and a half in order to win the election and that they had done nothing while in power the past four years. Thus, although the government's economic policies has many people upset ever since they were introduced over the summer, it's not the primary reason why people took to the streets in September.

Still, it's the economic aspects which have become the focus for most mainstream media outlets in their support for Gyurcsany and his government. Indeed, the Financial Times went so far as to argue that only Gyurcsany is capable of seeing through the reforms that are absolutely necessary for the country. A change in government, therefore, would lead to disaster.

The idea that only Gyurcsany can solve Hungary's economic woes is clearly false. An ambitious leader of the former communist youth movement, he quickly amassed his fortune in just a few years through financial trickery, rather than sound business practices. Also, the fact that he so pervasively lied is quite problematical. If he once lied, and admitted to doing so thoroughly and for such a long period of time, how can he ever be trusted?

And it's not only to the Hungarian electorate he lied: when he tried to push through his first budget after succeeding Peter Medgyessy as prime minister, he tried to talk his way out of the omission of the cost for Hungary's highway building projects by referring to "another way of accounting". This either entails that Gyurcsany is a pathological liar and tried to hoodwink even EU officials or that he seriously believed then that there was another way of accounting. Either way, it shows how the Hungarian prime minister is not someone who is qualified or able to solve the country's problems.

In addition to this, the corporate-friendly way in which the Gyurcsany government wishes to solve the country's economic woes runs counter to what the European Commission (EC) itself regards as the basis for a sound economic policy. The EC has reiterated on several occasions that it is Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) which are the backbone to the European economy and the key to future growth and innovation. Yet the present reform package of the Hungarian government does exactly the opposite: it burdens SMEs and micro-enterprises to the point that many will end up shutting their doors, pushing people either toward the unemployment lines or the shadows of the black and grey economies.

Meanwhile, corporations continue to enjoy various forms of corporate welfare through various financial incentives such as preferential loans. At the same time, the government turns a blind eye to unfair competition practices by these corporations (especially large supermarket chains such as Tesco, Auchan, etc.) in which prices are pushed to such artificially low levels that local merchants find it impossible to compete. It's the same type of strategy which McDonalds used many years ago to wipe out Hungary's local fast food outlets and gain a substantial share of the country's fast food market.

Although the Convergence Program has been accepted by Brussels, it also has been noted that major parts of it are considered to be risky. This raises the question as to whether "Eurocrats" in Brussels actually believe in the program or whether they feel that by rejecting it the Hungarian government might fall. Since most would prefer to avoid the latter, economic pragmatism has been sacrificed for the sake of political expediency.

In Hungary, meanwhile, the biggest worry seems to be the image of the country and that if the country doesn't get its house in order it will lose EU funding. Building a sound democracy and a sound economic policy doesn't seem to be a priority. What is important is to make sure the government gets the cash from Brussels; how this cash will be spent afterward is another story. Thus, a change in government at this stage would only complicate matters.

This, unfortunately, is where the crux of the problem is. It's not so much how the health services or other sectors of society have been run, albeit there are some serious problems in these areas which definitely need to be fixed. Rather, the way in which the government has spent the money it has thus far received from Brussels, as well as the country's faulty privatization process which cost the government much in terms of lost revenue, is the main problem to be tackled. There is no sign that there has been any reform in this area, nor does there seem to be any sort of system of checks and balances set up to keep an eye on how EU funding will be properly distributed by the government.

A Second Regime Change?
Contrary to the hopes and predictions of some, on Saturday the demonstration in front of parliament, where protesters against the government have gathered since last Sunday when the prime minister's secret speech was first made public, swelled to the biggest size yet. Tens of thousands gathered in front of parliament, with people streaming in from all parts of the country.

The fact that this demonstration was peaceful, like the others before them in front of parliament, simply reinforces for many the suspicion that the violent outbreaks at the beginning of the week were provoked and somehow orchestrated.

The political blame game, meanwhile, has estranged many from what goes on in parliament. Many no longer have faith in the political process and distrust politicians from all parties and all sides of the political spectrum. For this reason, the demonstrators in front of parliament are calling not only for a change in government, but for a new constitution as well.

In some ways, this can be viewed as an attempt at a second velvet revolution. The political leaders of the present are the tired, worn-out faces from the past. There has been little change over the past decade and a half and people are yearning for new faces and new ideas.
Related: Hungary: PM Caught on Tape - Scandal as Prime Minister Gyurcsany admits to a year and a half of lies

Budapest Riots and Autonomous Reactions


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