Demonstrations have been taking place in Budapest for the past few days, with police using tear gas to disperse thousands of people, mostly youngsters, shouting various anti-government slogans and offering clear-cut advice: It’s time to send them to court. Them, of course, means the heavy-handed cabinet of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, which has just announced a so-called ‘slavery law’ (which increases annual overtime from 250 to 400 hours, to be paid in three years time) and the creation of new administrative courts to be controlled directly by the minister of justice, that is – a politician, not a lawyer or a judge.
All this has happened just a few days after a previous wave of mass-demonstrations against the Soros Law, special legislation that has forced away from Budapest the Central European University (CEU) and the Open Society Foundation, established at the end of the communist era by Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros. CEU relocated to Vienna, the Open Society Foundation to Berlin.
The angry Hungarians – mostly inhabitants of the capital city – are on a collision course with the government, protesting against constantly growing pressure from above on citizens’ freedoms and civilian rights, centralised state propaganda and the visible wipe-out of all independent institutions in the country. Instead of the rule of law, they feel, there is more and more discipline and new harsh or tough measures or regulations.
Meanwhile, the ever-growing and increasingly powerful state-dominated media has just one message, which has prompted further public fury: the chaos was created by the opposition and hooligans, using whistles, sirens and loud anti-government rhetoric, leading to “the obstruction of democracy in the state”. The media’s message is that the opposition is financed by foreigners, and that activists loyal to Soros have caused the disturbances.
Since taking undisputed power in the spring of 2010 Mr Orbán has retreated only once, in the autumn of 2014 – rejecting a new law to regulate the internet. Is he ready to do that again, under public pressure?
No one knows yet what will happen next. However, at least two major issues are also looming on the horizon. One is the already announced removal of a statue of former prime minister Imre Nagy, hero and martyr of 1956 uprising and revolution, from its current position in front of Hungary’s parliament building. The statue will be moved to the sidelines, replaced by a monument commemorating victims of the Red Terror of 1919-1920 – which stood here during the admiral Horthy era (1920-1944).
Also expected soon is the relocation of Mr Orbán’s office, from the parliament building (which has hosted the Hungarian PM since 1990) to the newly renovated Carmelite monastery on Castle Hill, on the Buda side of the Danube. Mr Orbán became famous for huge investments in the countryside village where he spent his youth, named Felcsút. Now the streets of Budapest whisper that he is preparing to move in with the royals.
Judging from the slogans used by the masses in early and mid-December 2018, Hungary finds itself at a critical juncture and a crossroads: ‘Dictatorship or revolution’, as one of the banners carried by the demonstrators announced.
It means that the public sees no democratic choice or solution. Not a pleasant situation at all. And not a nice perspective – both for Mr Orbán and for his country.
The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy.