Hungary: Autumn of Discontent

Tensions in Hungary still remain high as a result of last year’s lies. It has been one year since audio tapes were leaked in which the prime minister of Hungary, Ferenc Gyurcsany, admitted to lying day and night in order to seize power for power’s sake. At the time, the leak led to a spontaneous demonstration in front of parliament. Later, a smaller group of protesters attacked the state television building.

The protest in front of parliament lasted for over a month, and gradually degraded into a farce. Subsequently, it was hijacked by the political opposition. The police eventually broke up the protest by force on the eve marking the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, and a bloody police crackdown followed on later demonstrations in where hundreds were hurt, some seriously. The brutality of the police action was such that even the European parliament initiated its own investigation into the events. Although over sixty police officers were charged with abuse, only one case has so far come to court. Meanwhile senior officers responsible for the bloody events were either allowed to retire in peace or were promoted.

Fearing a repeat of the events from last year, the Hungarian authorities made sure they were better prepared this time. More tear gas was ordered along with over two thousand litres of pepper spray. Additionally, three new and specialised water cannon vehicles were purchased from Israel. As it later turned out, the money for the water cannon came from the EU — specifically, the Shengen fund. This fund is supposed to be used to upgrade the capabilities of border authorities along non-Shengen border areas (i.e., along the border of non-EU states and Romania). Instead, these water cannon were purchased for the Budapest police to use against local protesters. Despite the Hungarian government’s claim that this equipment is for use against illegal immigrants (thus far it has been used as a show of force during recent protests), it’s hard to imagine that Eurocrats in Brussels will accept such a feeble excuse. Moreover, the Hungarian government didn’t note this purchase last year when it was supposed to, adding to the likelihood that this money, over 300 million forint (about 1.2 million dollars), will have to be returned.

Aside from making sure that the police had enough hardware, a subtle propaganda campaign was also launched. Hungarian state radio kept referring to the one year anniversary of the attack on the state television building by a smaller and more extreme group of protesters when in fact the anniversary was about the revelation of the leaked audio tapes in which the prime minister unabashedly admitted to lying. In addition to this, the authorities attempted to occupy the space in front of parliament so as to force demonstrations elsewhere. Although this plan had succeeded to some degree, namely during the weekend prior to the anniversary (which was on a Tuesday), attempts to do so on the actual day (September 18th) ended in a miserable public relations failure.

Originally, the government had planned to hold a handball gala in front of parliament on September 18th, only to withdraw at the last minute for "security reasons". The Hungarian police said that there were reports that extremists would disrupt the handball match. In reality, however, mounting public pressure and criticism had forced the authorities to leave the space in front of parliament free for protest. A spokesperson for the ruling party noted that they "had no idea" that September 18th was such a sensitive date. The head of the handball federation also came under scrutiny for his part in organising the event. As with his political counterpart, he maintained that he had no idea that particular day would be controversial, asserting his view that 8 out of 10 Hungarians aren’t even aware of the significance behind September 18th. What perhaps finally blew a hole through these lame excuses was the fact that the handball gala was organised on Tuesday, during the work week. Public galas are foremost slated for holidays and weekends when people have the time and inclination to go and see such an event.

Even though the Hungarian authorities were more or less well prepared — both in terms of hardware and propaganda — they needn’t have bothered. The protests went off peacefully without any trouble. Moreover, given that the one year anniversary fell on a weekday, the turnout was lower than expected, with many protests and demonstrations held on the weekend prior to that date instead.

Although the Hungarian authorities were able to breathe a sigh of relief, their ordeal isn’t over. The autumn has just begun, and the main attraction is yet to come. The major point of focus is October 23rd, which is not only the anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution but also of the bloody police crackdown of demonstrations last year. Indeed, some Hungarians equate both as one and the same. Since that date is a public holiday and commemorates the notion of change and revolt, many more people are expected to be out in the streets.

One can only hope that the events of October will pass peacefully enough. Even so, the significance of both September and October is the discontent that is attributed to these autumn months. The Hungarian government can never be at peace, and will always be on their guard against a person’s democratic right to protest.

The photo of Ferenc Gyurcsány is from Wikipedia, taken by Adam Csaba Szegvari