Marie Saltman 80x108Erin Marie Saltman writes that opposition forces remain divided in Hungary, as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz government continues initiatives to solidify changes to the constitution, media laws and voting constituencies.

In Hungary March 15th is a day resonating in political legacy. Spawned in remembrance of the 1848 revolution, Hungary’s iconic poet revolutionary Sándor Petőfi stood on the steps of the NationalMuseum and read his 12 Points demanding freedom of speech and national political liberties from the Hapsburg Empire. Today Petőfi has become a malleable political symbol of revolution and change for government and opposition alike, with both groups moving to celebrate his legacy.

The Fidesz government has personified itself as the real Hungarian revolutionary, calling its majority election into power in 2010 a voting revolution, an opportunity for Hungary to finally rid itself of its history of oppressive powers, first by the Hapsburgs and then by the Communists. In Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s national speeches there is wariness towards the assimilating and constricting measures of the EU and IMF, questioning whether these international institutions bare the same hallmark of oppression. Backing the government, which still holds a strong lead in polls among decided voters, are throngs of dedicated supporters holding ‘peace marches’ and rallies to show continued support for their government’s direction.

Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban Credit: EPP (Creative Commons BY)

Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban Credit: EPP (Creative Commons BY)

The main concern of internal oppositions and international onlookers remains the fast and increasingly enlarged capacity the Fidesz government has taken in restructuring the Hungarian state. Most recently on March 11th President János Áder passed the 4th Amendment adding a fifteen-page amendment to the forty-five-page constitution, despite the constitutional court ruling against many of the proposed additions. The additions worryingly mirror some of the larger issues targeted in radical right party, Jobbik’s 2010 Manifesto. Some of the top controversial changes in the 4th Amendment include:

Defining a family as a man, woman and their children. The basis of defining a family is marriage excluding single parents, unmarried partners and gay marriage. Equal recognition of same-sex unions has been edited from the constitution.

  • Students receiving financial support for their university degrees will be forced to stay within Hungary for a period of time to work. The state has taken more direct control of the financial management of universities.
  • It is illegal to sleep or set up camp in public spaces, making homelessness illegal.
  • The government has redefined which churches in Hungary are officially recognised, taking official status away from a few hundred churches.
  • Campaign resources will be limited including a restriction on political advertising to be aired only on public media (thought to be largely run by government sympathizers).
  • The death penalty is not explicitly banned in new constitution.
  • Women’s reproductive rights are not explicitly guaranteed.

In addition to these changes, the constitutional court can no longer refer back to its older rulings before January 2012, wiping out twenty years of constitutional case law on human rights protection and by April 2014 Fidesz will have named nine of the fourteen Constitutional Judges. Strong criticism from the Council of Europe, Venice Commission, EU, IMF and US State Department seem to have caused little reflection.

Together 2014
Attempting to unite opposition is the movement Together 2014 (Együtt 2014), which aims to bring together the efforts of online activist groups, political parties, trades unions and NGOs. Together 2014 announced its movement in October 2012 and recently declared itself as a political party, founded by combining the efforts of figurehead and ex-Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai with two of Hungary’s largest grassroots opposition movements, Milla and Szolidaritás.

The goal of Together 2014 is to unite all opposition forces to overpower Fidesz’ hegemony but hurdles are already becoming apparent. The recent snow-covered streets of Budapest, leading to the cancellation of the March 15th Together 2014 demonstrations, is only the tip of the iceberg.

While all opposition movements and parties agree that Fidesz is unhealthy for Hungary, defining the illness is much easier than prescribing the cure. Milla, using Petőfi’s portrait with a large censorship strip over his mouth as one of their icons, was founded through online activism drawing large crowds into the streets against the curtailing of human rights. Yet dedication to a new political force goes against a core group of their founding members. Made up of poets, activists and Budapest-based intellectuals there is a continued distrust of politicians as a whole, making some Milla supporters reticent to rally behind another potentially corrupt and ‘political’ figurehead.

Other political parties have also shown potential support but undefined intentions. The Socialist Party (MSZP) and splinter party Democratic Coalition (DK) have been supportive but vague in their political rhetoric, unwilling to fully hand the reigns over to another party with such new foundations.  Green party LMP has also divided over the decision to unite. The party has now split with half of its members joining Together 2014 and the other half remaining staunchly opposed to joining forces linked with the ‘old political elite’. In this state of unrest the opposition spectrum in Hungary continues to fracture and multiply. Student activist group HaHa stands alone in its anti-government protests and demonstrations. Rumors of yet another new opposition party, this time run by ex-Finance Minister Lajos Bokros, continue. Yet while opposition fluctuates the strong mandates of the Fidesz government continue.

Although decided voters largely maintain their support for Fidesz there is an ever-increasing disillusionment with the nature of Hungarian politics and politicians. Over 50% of the population is undecided or unsupportive of any political party. Speaking with a Together 2014 representative who is a reformed Fidesz supporter (from the days when Fidesz was a young pro-European liberal party) it is clear that two things need to happen if any united opposition has a change in 2014; these opposition efforts need to expand beyond the active capital of Budapest into the villages and counties and the disillusioned need to be reinvigorated into the political process because there is no democracy without the ever important demos.

This article originally appeared at Policy Network and is part of the Policy Network/Barrow Cadbury Trust project on “Populism, Extremism and the Mainstream”.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Marie Saltman 80x108Erin Marie Saltman – UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies
Erin Marie Saltman is a political scientist at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Her research focuses on the contemporary process of political socialization among young people in Hungary.

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