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Hungary threatens the European Union – a photo essay from Budapest

"I joined a massive demonstration against the Orbán supremacy a week after the election, on Saturday afternoon 14 March. It completely filled Budapest’s wide avenues between the Opera and Parliament."

lead lead ‘Orbán, get lost to the tulipy cunt.’ A famous Hungarian curse put to a new use. All photographs the author's own.The election victory of Viktor Orbán – his third in a row – in Hungary last week is a much greater danger to the European Union than Brexit. A clearly undemocratic Premier now threatens to overturn the rule of law and install himself as an effective dictator based on popular mobilisation, stirred by noxious racist and xenophobic strobes.

The menace follows his overwhelming election victory last week on Sunday 8th March. The recipient of billions of euros in EU support, much of which is apparently misappropriated by regime corruption, and benefiting from German permission, Orbán is arguably now coming to represent actually existing Europe.

Hungary’s capital city voted against him and his party, Fidesz. The town is still covered in election posters. Idealistic images of the leaders of the fragmented opposition parties stare out from lampposts. From Jobbik, the rightist party that came second, to centrist and leftist movements – like Momentum, founded last year, that gained just 3% of the vote and failed to enter parliament. A brief post-election report is filled with their now gloomy faces in defeat and resignation.

The thought that together they had 51% of the total was little consolation. The electoral system introduced by Orbán loaded the votes in his favour and gave him a two-thirds parliamentary majority, enough to do as he wishes with the constitution.

The countryside of this modest, 10 million strong people, backed Orbán to the hilt, after two terms in power and outrageous examples of corruption, support for Fidesz grew. “Basically a significant part of Hungarian society wanted this type of governance to continue. This is not because these people are stupid, tunnel-visioned, or unprincipled”. The words are those of Márton Gulyás, a brilliant, 32 year-old opposition leader, whose Country for All movement did not run in the election but attempted and failed to persuade opposition parties to cooperate and ally against Orbán, to prevent his gaining the two-thirds parliamentary supremacy that now offers him unlimited power.

Behind the alarm and disappointment there hangs an overwhelming reality. Orbán’s campaign was one of unmitigated fear and loathing. He had no programme and offered no manifesto, against which his achievements could be held to account over the coming four years. Instead, he set out his strategy in a speech on 22 June last year, and proposed to defend Hungary from a campaign organised by George Soros and the European Union to dissolve Hungary and Christian Europe in a tide of Muslim migrants.

I knew things were grim in Hungary but until going there did not understand how bad they are, or how it feels. It was like going to the USA after Trump has won a third term. If you can, imagine Trump being in office for eight years, building his southern wall and amending the constitution so he could run again. Then, winning. Not only that, third-term Trump has increased his popular support, has two-thirds majorities in the Senate and House made up of his hand-picked candidates, looks forward to filling a majority of seats in the Supreme Court. While, immediately after the election, the New York Times and Washington Post announce their immediate closure as no longer commercially viable.

It is not the likelihood of such a scenario that is concerning, although this year white rural America support for Trump has grown from 50 to 65 per cent since January. It is what it would mean – and what has happened in Hungary. It is no ordinary election that can be reversed at the end of a four-year term. It promises a transition from law-based elections to plebiscitary Bonapartism, arbitrary dictatorship and a chauvinist crushing of liberty and free-thinking.

Goodbye reality

One of the many election posters filling the Budapest bus-stops is a fake. It is a photo-shopped picture of Soros embracing four of the opposition party leaders. Proclaiming “Let’s Stop Soros’s Candidates”.

“Let’s Stop Soros’s Candidates”. This image has no basis in what used to be called reality. The four parties attempted to take its deployment to court and failed, it was ruled to be free speech. Apparently across much of the countryside the picture was taken to be of an actual get-together.

Along with it are other posters claiming that the opposition wanted to dismantle the wall built by Orbán on Hungary’s southern frontier. Another, taken from the same image of young male refugees made infamous by Nigel Farage in the Brexit referendum, proclaimed STOP about something that is not happening.

Proclaiming STOP to something not happening.To use Miklos Haraszti’s description, a propaganda state has been created in Hungary. It combines post-truth anti-Semitism, such as the anti-Soros mantra in which the ‘J’ word is not mentioned, with explicitly anti-Muslim bigotry. Using this vile propaganda Fidesz has mobilised support across a countryside weakened and threatened not by immigration but by the scale of emigration, as the best of the younger generation flee the country for opportunities abroad.

With the opposition parties reeling from the devastating scale of their political annihilation, a civil-society network came together to call for a rally of protest via Facebook. For a spontaneous demonstration the turnout was astounding.

To our left. To our right.These two photos are taken from the same spot as we gathered in the avenue leading to the Opera House before marching on parliament.

The demonstrators were very mixed. The red striped flag of Jobbik supporters joined the Momentum generation.

There were the young.

The serious

And the patriots

Some demonstrators came in peace and carried daffodils that were handed out

The posters were often witty and intelligent.

‘Dictators of the world, unite?’ A pertinent question.

Two placards were especially visible by the screens in front of the parliament building as we listened to the speeches.

This shows Chancellor Merkel saying ‘We cannot give you as much as you steal’.

Warning finger: ‘Don’t Cheat Don’t Steal Don’t Lie Because the government cannot tolerate competition’.

Others were more scholarly.

‘Rights are not what they give but what they cannot take away.’The regime’s destruction of the opposition press was highlighted.

Propaganda machine is no media.

The press is squeezed. At the end of the speeches, in the huge space in front of the parliament, the organisers declared they would sing the Hungarian national anthem followed by the European Union’s. In clear, firm tones the great crowd sung their national anthem. Then the speakers blasted out Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Its words were not familiar and as the glorious choir began, spontaneously people began to turn on their phone searchlights.

This 35 seconds gives you an idea of the size and the presence of the people of Hungary that the EU ought to be supporting.

The speeches at the end of a great rally are usually symbolic not substantive. But inspired by the force of the mobilisation one of the organisers declared that they will gather ‘next week’.

There were loud protests next to me. Rightly so. It can hardly be bigger. A numbers game will be played. Some organisers will disagree leading to negative publicity. 

European solidarity

This problem is a familiar one of recent years for the spontaneous, open-minded opposition to the well-funded organisation of closure and narrowness. Without clearly achievable demands, a civil society movement cannot grow into an immediately effective force.

Any attempt to simply defy the authorities will be ground down, by techniques now quite well established and shared by security forces around the world; who are only too happy to crush the diehards when support peels away. The only time such protest has been completely successful in its own terms was the indignados in Spain in 2011. They occupied the main squares of Spain, starting in Madrid and then in 81 towns and cities.

They generated an intense learning experience and almost immediately debated when to disperse, doing so within three weeks. Unlike the Occupy movements in Wall Street and London, they didn’t try to hang on indefinitely. Instead, they pivoted to engage with the poorer areas of Spain to challenge the way the economy was being run. Out of this came not only a new and relatively successful political party but also municipal victories in Barcelona and Madrid.

No such opportunity to defy the authority of Viktor Orbán was on offer in Budapest or could be. After all, he had just won an election with a significant increase in support. He felt the force was with him last July, when Orbán declared, ‘Twenty-seven years ago here in Central Europe we believed that Europe was our future; today we feel that we are the future of Europe’.

The task that confronts the urban demonstrators is to prove this wrong – which they cannot do without Europe itself refusing Orbanism as its future.

Anthony Barnett is currently a visiting fellow at the IWM Vienna 

The Lure of Greatness, England’s Brexit & America’s Trump – Anthony Barnett

“Brilliant”, Suzanne Moore, “Blistering”, Zadie Smith
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“One of the most important political books of 2017”, The Guardian Editorial on Renewing the United Kingdom, 1 January 2018
“Essential reading for students of politics, constitutional law and international relations.” Professor David Marquand
“A wonderful and compelling page turner that artfully weaves together debates on freedom, security, liberty, sovereignty and nationalism. Cutting across a range of themes from the power of the press to the problems with the political establishment and manipulative corporate populism, this is a book that deserves to be read.” Natalie Fenton, Goldsmiths Professor of Media and Communications


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