To The Margins of An Early January Protest in Hungary

Hungarians themselves may have been too scared to realize that, following their protest against the country’s new constitution, they were cast into the limelight of international attention. While less than a thousand politicians gathered to celebrate the new “fundamental law” in the Hungarian Opera House on January 2, as many as hundred thousand demonstrators were on hand to demand restoration of the Hungarian Republic.

What the protesters’ who surrounded the ornate neo-Renaissance building demands would not be too difficult to itemize: democracy, return to the rule of law, constitutional guarantees for fundamental rights, the independence of the judiciary, a reasonable economic policy, and an end to Hungary’s slide into authoritarianism. But who took to the streets on January 2 in Budapest? How did this group forge its political alliance and what internal dynamics came to shape its unity? The following are a few afterthoughts probing into what has thus far been a relatively monolithic story about last Monday’s protest: four accounts about the Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Beautiful face of the demonstration.

Take 1: The Bad

In 1989, Hungary’s constitution was declared from the window of the Hungarian parliament. As it turns out, places symbolize better than any other design of a ceremonial passage from one regime to another the nature of the regime change. In 1989, the constitution came into effect in an open space which was capable of gathering any and every Hungarian citizen. An enormous crowd assembled on that day to witness history and to rejoice in the forming of the Third Hungarian Republic.

An iconic image of the crowd awaiting the declaration of the Third Hungarian Republic on Oct. 23, 1989.

The masses who had come to witness the declaration of the Third Hungarian Republic on Kossuth Square on Oct. 23, 1989.

The people’s enthusiasm over their new constitution corresponded to a crucial sentence in the 1989 constitution, according to which “in the Hungarian Republic, all power belongs to the people.” Hungary’s 1949 constitution ran the sentence “all power in the People’s Republic of Hungary belongs to the working people” in the place of this sentence. A slight difference of words, but a world of difference in practice: the 1989 constitution laid down a constitutional form for a pluralist democracy, while the modified sentence created a class-based dictatorship and one-party totalitarianism.

Simple as the above sentence may be, authors of new constitutions may modify it only at their own peril: as Hungarians should very well know, even the slightest change to the formula may result in considerable political consequences. Not that this prevented the author of Hungary’s 2012 constitution from taking considerable liberties with the phrase. The previous constitution’s statement is modified in the 2012 version so much that Hungary’s new constitution does not even ascribe sovereign power to the people. “The source of public power are the people” says the equivalent sentence in the new fundamental law of the country, indicating that a “public” kind of power (“közhatalom”: it is unclear whether the term is redundant so as to be vague or vague so as to be redundant) may have originated from the people at some point during the founding of the current political regime. Could the people recover this power, does it still belong to them? The sentence is so non-committal that one might think the answer was intentionally left to each interpreter’s imagination. Were there not guidance provided in other parts of the document for an answer – in the preamble of the document, to be precise. There, the new fundamental law courts a theory which historically had served as the rival theory of popular sovereignty. Besides a statement “acknowledging” the role of religion – Christianity to be precise – in sustaining the nation, the new basic law also asserts the Hungarian nation’s “respect” for the unity of the nation as embodied in the Holy Crown.

This is all in keeping with the manner in which the new Hungarian constitution came into being. Viktor Orbán’s government derives its supposed mandate to enact a new constitution for Hungary from its 2010 electoral win: neither a procedural transfer of constituent power nor the kind of nationwide consensus building that by now is typical of postmodern constitutional reforms gave legitimacy to the process.

Hungary's president Pál Schmitt delivers a speech about Hungary's new constitution in the Hungarian Opera House on Jan. 1, 2012.

Nothing reflected this painful dispossession of the people’s sovereignty than the manner of celebration – chosen by the Hungarian government itself – for the public celebration of the new constitution. The Hungarian Opera House is a notoriously small venue; on this occasion too it was only able to provide space for the most loyal supporters of the government. It is unclear whether politicians of the government’s opposition had been invited at all. But even among those who did receive an invitation several thought it more tasteful to refuse: the US ambassador to Hungary did not comply with the government’s invitation, for example.

The 2012 constitution is the subje in the Hungarian Opera House on Jan. 2, 2012.

Though the participants billed 13 million Hungarian forints to the Hungarian taxpayers for the party, the event was not “sajtónyilvános” (public for the purposes of press access). Still, the program – which contained music by Hungarian composers only – was broadcast to the homes of Hungarians by the Hungarian state television. Amidst the musical entertainment, Hungary’s President delivered a speech to welcome the 2012 constitution. Addressing the very people who passed the constitution through the parliamentary process directly, but talking to the rest of the people only indirectly, through the television screen, he stated that the constitution’s “spirit has always been present in the mode of thinking, the traditions, and the world-view of Hungarians.”

It only underscored the sway of the President’s statements over his audience, as well as his genuine belief that what he was saying was true, that the secret service took the opposition protest outside the building so seriously that they developed a plan to rescue the politicians in the Opera through an underground tunnel system should the demonstration outside turn critical.

Take 2: The Good

Contrary to what their new constitution may indicate, anti-government protesters did not come to the demonstration united under the Holy Crown. To the contrary, just days before the protest were to take place, eight different organizations submitted protest permits to the area surrounding the Hungarian Opera. As usual in similar situations, arbitration talks were held to make arrangements for sharing the area. It was during these talks, exactly four days before the demonstration, that plans were drawn up for a protest at which, for the first time since the declaration of the Third Hungarian Republic in 1989, the civilian opposition would demonstrate in unison with political parties already represented in the Hungarian parliament.

The core dilemma that had to be resolved during this arbitration process was sometimes described as the problem of holding a “civilian’s protest” as opposed to a “political protest.” The stakes were obvious: whoever was able to emerge as the leader of the protest stood to profit considerably – politically as well as through their influence on the program of the demonstration. Indirectly, the decision also held high stakes for the opposition movement as a whole: were they to settle on the wrong type of leadership, the organizers would have risked alienating those protest-goers who may have been unwilling to associate with specific political groups or political styles included in the program.

The dilemma was unprecedented, because every single mass demonstration since the Orbán government’s election in 2010 had been organized from civil sphere initiatives. Opposition parties in the Hungarian parliament did not try their hands at extra-parliamentary action before Dec. 23, 2011, when Hungary’s green-liberal party LMP (Politics Can Be Different) announced a new approach they are calling “New Resistance” and resorted to civil disobedience. This time around, however, political parties wanted in on the organizing: four left-wing political parties (LMP, the Hungarian Socialist Party, the Democratic Coalition as well as 4K!, the Fourth Republic Movement) each expressed interest in participating and publicizing their support for the protest.

This, however, was a sensitive matter, given the unwritten rule among the civilian opposition groups not to “encroach on the protest of another” (“rátelepedni a más tüntetésére” is the phrase in Hungarian – for those who are incredulous that such a concept even exists). Quite simply put, the civilians, who discovered the power of uniting people over political causes rather than focusing on their differences of party preference, were too distrustful of the professional politician’s drive to exploit popular movements to their own advantage. Perhaps a more honest explanation would be that the civil sphere did not trust politicians to understand that their ways may alienate even more from political participation than they already have (the Hungarian electorate is famously apolitical: according to current surveys, as many as 50% of voters are disillusioned with all political parties in general).

The colors of the crowd: the banner of the civilian grass-roots movement Solidarity is displayed next to a contingent of green placards held up by supporters of the green party LMP.

The consensus arrived at during the arbitration process before the January 2 demonstration reflected this sensibility: the decision was to organize a “civilian” demonstration. The eight different permit applications would be withdrawn. In their place, two private individuals representing civil organizations – Tamás Székely of the labor group Solidarity and Attila (Steve) Kopiás of “Habitat instead of Jail,” a group active in protesting Hungary’s criminalization of homelessness – were to submit a permit for a collective protest. Political parties could bring their signs and their members. The demonstration was not going to center around or even include in its program speeches by representatives of the four opposition parties, however.

Just as soon as the consensus regarding the demonstration’s program was made public, however, a dissenting view argued that the agreement was politically imprudent. The argument targeted “the populism of anti-politics”: it advocated the need for a type of politics in which professional politicians are not relegated to the background of significant political action. When a society becomes disillusioned with politicians (or with the idea that public matters are carried on by persons who do politics as an occupation), the public will be run by politicians who do in fact tend to their own interest instead of watching out for the good of the public, the argument continued. “A general turning against the political system and the political elite can easily become the mortal disease of a democratic system,” the  dissenting view stated; and political parties should not take a backseat to civilian groups in Hungarian politics. The fact that the dissenting argument had been written by Hungary’s ex-prime minister from 2004 to 2009 – Ferenc Gyurcsány, one of the most divisive Hungarian politicians whom many believe to be guilty of failing to tend to the public good during his years of government – did not help the reception of the argument at all.

But Gyurcsány’s dissent may have been useful to properly situate the supposed tension between civilians and politicians in the Hungarian opposition. Their distrust for one another had run its course, and what was at stake under these circumstances would be more properly characterized as two competing claims for what a mass demonstration by the Hungarian opposition should look like. One of these advocated displaying the unity of the protesters through their opposition to Hungary’s 2012 constitution – this was the plan for the demonstration with civilian groups in the forefront of the event.  Others it seems would have been ready for showcasing the diversity of political voices present among the government’s critics. These protest-goers would have been ready to organize an event at which political parties could have competed for the political support of the demonstrators.

In terms of symbols, the crowd came to be united under a unified banner even swifter than the organizers of the protest. Neither as civilians nor as political actors, the speakers settled into referring to them as “köztársaságiak” – “supporters of the Republic” – to which demonstrators seemed to voice an extraordinarily positive response. Of course, it settled the problem of their collective identity. It grasped in one word the injustice they had come to protest, an injustice codified in the new constitution, which scraps the word “republic” from Hungary’s official name and replaces it with the platitudinous term “country.” But the fact that “köztársaságiak” is also the word one uses for the planets of the Galactic Republic in the Hungarian version of Star Wars only added to the giddiness of the crowd over finally resolving the nagging question of their unity.

Take 3: The Ugly

The Hungarian far-right also registered a counter-protest at the site of the opposition demonstration. In their internet announcement, they promised the presence of the New Hungarian Guard as well as a short march of its troops (both of which are in defiance of a Hungarian law banning paramilitary organizations).

The stated intent of the far-right’s protest, called “Let Us Clean the Streets from the Dirt,” was to refuse a leftist takeover of the streets. After 2006, violent clashes had taken place between far-right protesters and the Hungarian police. The fringe group seen at the protest saw the leftist opposition’s mass demonstration as an opportunity for revenge. As a middle-aged woman told a reporter on the scene, she attended the protest because “after how Gyurcsány had us beaten up, I wanted to see how he would feel now.” “Because perhaps you would beat him up now?,” asked the reporter. On the video, the woman makes a theatrical eye roll toward the sky. If Hungarians have a god, then yes, she says.

Despite clear statements to the effect that the far-right protest aimed at interfering with the event organized by the civilian opposition, the Hungarian police did not find it problematic to authorize the gathering of guardists and their sympathizers amidst the opposition rally. And because the authorities did not even bother to cordon off the two camps, several violent incidents resulted in personal injuries to the demonstrators.

The most well-known of these took place fairly early during the protest, before the speeches even began, upon the arrival of the Hungarian Socialist Party to the demonstration site. On the socialists’ account of the incident, they had been given a police escort, but once the police had led them into the midst of the crowd, they found themselves facing the far-right contingent – with no police in sight. Beyond this point, videos of the incident show the far-right supporters chanting “Gyurcsány get lost” and the socialists yelling “Nazis go home” back at them. The police took several minutes to arrive; in the meantime at least three Socialist members of parliament were spat upon, kicked or pushed. Of course Gyurcsány is no longer a member of the Socialist Party; according to those present, he and his new party, the Democratic Coalition, was standing close by to the face-off; close enough indeed to witness it.

Below is a video of what the incident looked like to those near-by:

Feeding on the “success” of the attack, the approximately 150 far-right protesters resolved to a phalanx tactic of pushing into the crowd and spitting and taunting those protesting against the government – until the police arrived to the scene to push back against them. They then withdrew as requested the authorities, only to push into the crowd again once the police was no longer on the scene. The group included far-right member of parliament Szilvia Bertha. Videos of the protest show the fringe group chanting loudly while the speeches on the stage are in progress (political slogans as well as insults and bigotries); on pictures too they are easily identifiable through their “Árpád-striped” (red and white) flags and the black guard uniform on many in the group.

Far-right protesters in the middle of the crowd protesting the new Hungarian constitution on Jan. 2, 2012.

The far-right protesters also targeted sympathizers of the green party LMP. Individually, two of their supporters were approached by a smaller group of far-right radicals, who surrounded them, pushed them to the ground and beat up on them. One of the protesters assaulted in this manner, once pulled out of the midst of a group of far-right protesters, was brought to a side-street by the police only to be searched by the authorities for drugs.

In none of these incidents did the police take action against the perpetrators of violence, even though the New Hungarian Guard is officially banned in Hungary, and many of the far-right protesters could have been arrested for wearing the banned guard uniform alone. The Minister of the Interior, who at some point personally observed the police operations, received official inquiries from both the Socialist Party and LMP about the failure of the police to separate the counter-protesters or to arrest those who assaulted peaceful demonstrators.

Take 4: The Beautiful

Some of the most telling pictures of the demonstrations:

Demonstrators covering Andrássy Boulevard, Jan. 2, 2011.

Opposition to Hungary's new constitution, Jan. 2, 2011.

The crowd almost immediately in front of the stage.

This section of the crowd is so far from the demonstration's main stage that they can only see it as a small circle of light (with a red dot in its center) in the distance.

View more pictures in the BBC’s photo album.

Without English captions, there are plenty more pictures available in photo albums on Hungarian news websites such as index.huorigo.huhvg.hu and nol.hu.

Bonus Feature:

Beyond the Good, the Bad, the Ugly and the Beautiful, some aspects of Hungarian reality are simply so absurd that they withstand categorization. I will let this final protest-related news stand on its own:

The Hungarian state television's unique rendering of the mass demonstration (stills from live on-scene reports during the protest).

During its 7:30 p.m. news show, the Hungarian state television included live reports from the scene of the opposition demonstration. The background behind the reporters suggested that more police were on the scene than there were demonstrators against the government.

The next day, the Hungarian Television officially apologized for the “undisputed professional blunder.” They also did not deny that their reporter in the upper clip above was standing blocks away from the actual location of the protest. Though this did not prevent him from presenting his background as the location of the demonstration, before we assert that yet again the state-owned Hungarian media falsified its news report, let us consider the explanation. According to the Hungarian television’s press release, the blunder originated from the fact that street closures had prevented the television station’s mobile unit to reach the location of the protesting crowd in time for the broadcast.

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This entry was posted in 4K!, Democratic Coalition, Ferenc Gyurcsány, Hungarian government, Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), Hungary, Hungary-protests, LMP, Pál Schmitt and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to To The Margins of An Early January Protest in Hungary

  1. Wondercat says:

    As always, thank you for posting this information.

  2. Chef Nusy says:

    The Hungarian state TV reporter is in fact by the Opera House – to be exact, in the secured area in front of it, where the cars of the invitees arrived. So this is not exactly the “location of the protest” but an area secluded for vehicle traffic, valet parking and the personal security of those attending. This of course, constitutes false reporting on two occasions: once for the empty “protest”; and once for saying this scene was “blocks away”.

    I really enjoy your reporting, and have subscribed. It’s good to see a site/blog reporting in a perhaps less biased manner (or if it is biased; it’s my bias too).

    • Thanks! This is my understanding of it: the reporter’s standing on the block west of the Opera House, between Dalszínház utca and Székely Mihály utca, in an area closed off to both vehicle traffic and to pedestrians, as you say. The protest site was one block east of the Opera House and beyond, starting at Hajós utca. His head covers out exactly the spot where one could see the protesters in the distance.
      http://hvg.hu/itthon/20120103_tuntetes_mtv_bejelentkezes

      • Chef Nusy says:

        Yeah, that was kind of my approximation on the location, too.

        (Unrelated: I thoroughly enjoyed the plagiarism article… I’m curious what will happen, or rather, what won’t happen… but I’m pessimistic.)

  3. Guest says:

    The protesters size was 10,000 to 30,000. Where is the magical figure of 100,000 coming from?

    • kg says:

      My question, too. There weren’t that many, the 10-30 thousand seems correct to me, 30 thousand is probably already exaggerated.
      But we should add that for Hungary, this is a huge number!

      • I am actually fascinated by this topic. Everywhere else where I’ve followed protests, it is usually taken for granted that organizers tend to overestimate, whereas the police or the government tend to underestimate the crowd. Yet I have never seen pussyfooting comparable to that which is expected of reporters working in or out of Hungary. Even the international press has acquiesced to the habit: they politely report that the demonstration was attended by “several tens of thousand of people.” What on earth does that mean? Ten thousand? Fifty thousand? A hundred thousand? Isn’t there a huge difference? In some sense, this is about choosing to be informative, even at the risk of being wrong every once in a while – as opposed to continually staying on one’s guard against saying too much. I am normally happy to correct my factual mistakes and thank the person who helped to improve my post. In this case, however, I think that leaving the number in the post is a better choice for remaining transparent: through this mistaken number I am revealing my sources and my overall outlook, something which readers should have available to them from the very beginning of the piece.
        This is also a special case, because we are hardly talking about “facts” here. There is a certain political interest behind making our conversations focus on my crowd estimate, since we could have more substantial dialogue here. We could be talking about the merits (or lack thereof) of the demonstrators’ demands, about their tactics or about the new constitution.
        Many reports of the protest used the 100,000 or the more cautious “70 to 100 thousand” number within the few days after the protest, citing organizers as their sources, until the Hungarian government managed to hijack this conversation with this and other extraneous details of the protest. Péter Szijjártó, the prime minister’s press secretary managed to make himself look ridiculous (and petty) when he said that there were no more than five to eight thousand people protesting against the government outside the Opera House. He was also joined in the offensive by an article on Mandiner, an influential blog in Hungary with authors in the employment of the PR department of the Hungarian Ministry of Public Administration of Justice (Mandiner’s editor-in-chief used to be in charge of maintaining Viktor Orbán’s personal website).
        So Mandiner also published a widely-read and widely-quoted piece called “Protestmath.” They did not have “hard” evidence against the organizers’ 100,000 number. But they managed to find a few people who watched the demonstrating crowd disperse and who were willing to opine that there could have been no more than 25,000. Mandiner then went on to charge a long list of the opposition media with lying, as if they had intentionally falsified the facts of the matter by their higher crowd estimates.
        As far as the “scientific” truth is concerned, I think Marietta Le’s piece:
        http://globalvoicesonline.org/2012/01/10/hungary-hey-europe-sorry-about-my-prime-minister/
        gets it right with the 32-50,000 estimate. These numbers, by the way, are based on “scientific” methodology: you calculate the base square footage of the area occupied by the crowd and multiply it with your estimate of the “density” of the crowd (either a homogeneous density of the whole crowd, or maybe as the function of reports you solicited from people in each side-street about how crammed they felt during the protest?). As you can see, this is an exceedingly scientific way of arriving at a precise number. Here’s the Hungarian-language blog where they show you how these calculations were done for this protest:
        http://fideszfigyelo.blog.hu/2012/01/03/szamhaboru_es_a_lenyeg
        With that said, I just want to note the markedly self-assured way in which both of you assert the 10-30,000 number. Where is this “fact” coming from? I am especially interested because another worthy topic of investigation would be how distorted the information many Hungarians (those who do not use the internet) got about this protest from the state television. I also could share anecdotes about Hungarians who have never even heard that such a protest has ever taken place. I wonder if they are even aware that their constitution has been changed.
        By the way, one of the organizers of the protest changed its estimate after the protest – given all of the above – to 50,000, only to find itself attacked by the above-mentioned Mandiner blog for its “revisionism.” Now that’s what one calls a double bind.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this lengthy and detailed analysis. As an American who lived in Hungary from 2005-08, I am saddened by this turn to nationalist/authoritarian solutions to combating the admittedly scandalous corruption of the previous administration. My hope is that the younger generations of Hungarians who are not scarred by the communist legacy will remain concerned and interested enough to take a vested interest in political office and shape the country for the future, not the past.

  5. Pingback: Far-Right Protests in Budapest, Jan. 14. 2012 | The Contrarian Hungarian

  6. Brilliant article, gives a great insight on some aspects that, due to the media control currently in Hungary, are hard to find. Foreign press is also hard to fully trust due to the fact they mostly get the info through other indirect sources. Also, good analysis of the amount of people protesting in the comments: it hardly matters whether it’s 100.000 or 30.000, what matters is that they were much more than the government and the press controlled by it wanted people to believe. I am a Hungarian guy living in Italy, I care about both countries, and I don’t want to see democracy end in any of them.

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