Bus Wars: Protest Tourism At Hungary’s National Holiday

UPDATE 2: For an excellent report of the day complete and many, many photos, see Adrei Stavila’s blog at this link.

UPDATE to the story: Since publishing this story, a group of French intellectuals have placed a statement in Liberation, urging those who can to join the anti-government rally ( http://www.liberation.fr/c/01012395290-c ). For locations and gathering times for each protest, scroll down to end of post.


March 15 is a national holiday in Hungary: it’s the day of remembrance for the 1848 Spring of Nations which, in the case of Hungary, led to a prolonged and tragic war of independence. 164 years after this upsurge of nationalistic sentiment all across Europe, supporters and critics of the Hungarian government are alike in their desire to protest. On March 15, 2012, there will be a major anti-government demonstration as well as an enormous pro-government rally: drawing on Hungary’s revolutionary past, each camp is going to mobilize tens of thousands of protesters for and against the Hungarian government’s current “war of independence.” But there is a major difference in the availability of  financial resources to these two groups, and, as a result, some really surprising travel plans are in the making.

The Government’s Celebration. The government’s supporters are preparing with a repeat of the Békemenet (Peace March), a pro-government rally first held on January 21 of this year. They seem to have the backing of generous, though anonymous, donors; the tightly kept secrecy about the financial resources of the group is fueling rumors that the government is funneling money into the organization of the movement.

The Peace March keeps clear of complex political messaging: beyond its blank support for the Hungarian government, little can be pinned down about the movement’s political demands. The organizers are asking for government sympathizers to be present at the prime minister’s March 15 speech so that it is addressed to an enormous and visually impressive crowd and passes the threshold of a “message” to the country’s international critics.

Last year, massive anti-government demonstrations dominated the news from Hungary on both political holidays – on March 15 as well as on October 23, the day of remembrance for the 1956 revolution – and an anti-government demonstration of the same size is expected for March 15 of this year as well. Though last year the Hungarian government was keen on holding a rally for Oct. 23 – and with its designs on a protest location dangerously close to the anti-government protest, it threatened the feasibility of the opposition’s event – eventually the state-sponsored celebration was cancelled, due to Mr. Orbán’s urgent visit to an EU summit.

As such, this year’s March 15 celebration is going to be the first time Viktor Orbán will make an appearance in front of a sizable crowd since last year’s PR debacle. A year ago on March 15, the Hungarian government hired 500 people to cheer to the prime minister’s speech. Each of the paid extras received a payment of 2500 HUF after the event (the equivalent of 11.25 US dollars). At the time, the press secretary of the prime minister explained that the extras were important for the “artistic production” of the event and justified their pay from the state budget on the basis that they were an integral element of the spectacle [1].

Paid extras surround the Hungarian prime minister during his speech on March 15, 2011.

Improving the Spectacle. Public discontent with the Hungarian government has been growing since last March, but the growing Peace March movement [2] has taken the effort of conveying support behind the government to an entirely new level.

Over the last few weeks, Peace March advertisements have taken over entire billboards all over the country [3]. What is more, the movement’s mass demonstrations also seem to be packaged as low-cost sight-seeing opportunities of the Hungarian capital’s most popular tourism spots.

Already in January, during the movement’s first pro-government rally, the situation was not entirely different. The first Peace March started from Hungary’s famous Heroes’ Square and was in effect a several-mile walking tour of the capital ending in front of the gothic Parliament building on Kossuth Square. At that time, several hundreds of buses were chartered to bring participants of the March to Budapest. These were dubbed “Széles buses” by the government’s opposition – after Gábor Széles, a media mogul and one of the main organizers of the Peace March, who also happens to be the owner of a Hungarian bus factory.

After the Peace March a fleet of "Széles buses," carrying pro-government demonstrators, is leaving the Hungarian capital (January 21, 2012).

Rumors aside, precise information about the financial backing of this large-scale mobilization from every corner of the country (and from locations far beyond Hungary’s borders) has been difficult to obtain, though an investigative report prepared by Hungarian internet portal Origo (Hungarian link here) found that the governing party’s advanced network of local party offices played a crucial role in the mobilization.

Origo’s journalists were also able to document that those who arrived to Heroes Square for the pro-government demonstration in January paid between 500 and 2000 HUF (from 2.25 to 9 USD) for their return ticket. In some cases, this amounted to an 85% discount over the prices charged by regular bus lines [4]. The bus fleet, therefore, is by no means an indifferent budget issue considering that reporters on the scene estimated the size of the pro-government demonstration to approximately 100,000, though the government’s estimates put the number to 400,000 participants.

While the organizers of the rally denied drawing on public funds for the travel of the demonstrators, some local party officers were able to confirm the governing Fidesz party’s official involvement in organizing the demonstration. This included more than just the use of office resources: some party locals confirmed that they also spent party funds on subsidizing the cost of the buses used for transportation.

In other localities, the source of the financial support behind the discount travel came from “local businesses.” It is unclear what motivated these businesses to provide funding for the mass travel. Surprisingly, these generous local businesses were not interested in gaining business through their open sponsorship of the buses; in fact, party officers chose to keep the names of such companies a secret from the public.

Grand Travel to Hungary. Besides the repeat of the appearance of the bus fleet, the Hungarian capital now expects the arrival of thousands of Polish government sympathizers for March 15. As reported by Polish-speaker Hungarian blogger Mária Viszoczki (link in Hungarian here), thousands in Hungary are being recruited for a “Grand Travel to Hungary.” The official program of the Polish participants of the Hungarian national holiday includes a shorter event outside the National Museum, a visit to the Buda Castle, a scenic descent from the Castle and crossing from Buda to Pest on the historic Chainbridge (at this point, the Polish guests of the celebrations are going to be cheered on and joined by the Hungarian participants of the Peace March), and the pro-government demonstration outside of the Hungarian parliament, featuring Viktor Orbán’s speech. The busy day is to culminate in a reception in the Hungarian Parliament, hosted by high-ranking government officials [5].

Postcard-perfect: the planned marching route of the Hungarian government's Polish sympathizers, with the Buda Castle in the back and the illuminated Chainbridge.

The Polish demonstrators’ participation in the Hungarian national holiday is organized by Gazeta Polska, a conservative Polish magazine [and at the following website prepared specifically for the event: link in Polish]. As of last week, news reports anticipated one to two thousand Polish sympathizers, but the program is so popular that Gazeta Polska editor Tomasz Sakiewicz is preparing for seeing as many as 5,000 Polish demonstrators at the Hungarian government’s rally.

The Hungarian organizers will cover the cost of buses which are to transport the Polish guests in between locations during their stay in Budapest, as well as lunch and complimentary drinks during the sizable group’s visit in the Castle district. The Hungarian protests organizers are also paying for Polish interpreters to accompany the contingent throughout the day. Most of the Polish demonstrators are going to stay in hotels for which they are expected to pay “symbolic prices.” At least 200 of them will be hosted in various Budapest suburbs by private families.

On March 6 Imre Kerényi, the Hungarian government’s art commissar, was excited about the choreographic potential of the Polish demonstrators. As he described on Hungarian television station Echo TV:

“[The] peace march was a great invention because the route was long enough, and I, as a stage director, know that when you let an actor move for a while, or if you keep repeating the same thing for a long time, that makes an impact. This is a short form, that they will come down from the Castle. But it’s very timely, and very good, because it’s around March 15 – in fact, that’s when this is going to be. Back then, they came down from the castle, and they brought with them Táncsics [6], the liberated Táncsics. So as they will come down from the castle, either the thousand or the two thousand Poles, they need to be surrounded, just like on March 15 the people unhitched the horses from Táncsics’ coach as they came back to Pest. So that’s a potential choreography. [7]”

The Polish participants of the pro-government demonstration were also given instructions not to engage with political provocations while in Hungary and to be cautious in their interviews. A list of ideas has been provided to them for protest signs to carry. “God, Honor, Fatherland,” “We Are All Hungarians,” “Poles-Hungarians: Two Friends Fighting and Drinking Wine Together,” “Down with the communist, post-communist and red nazi traitor trouble-mongers!” “Our countries were taken to the edge of ruin by communists – out with them from public life!” are just a few examples included on the list.

Bus Wars. When asked about the source of funding for all of the above, Zsolt Bayer told the reporter of Hungarian economics magazine and internet portal HVG the following: “I know that it is very important for you to somehow bring [the issue of] money into this, but you will not be able to.” As such, he had no information to offer about the monetary aspects of organizing the Peace March, reiterating several times that he does not understand what role money plays in the act of “calling people to the streets” (see video at Hungarian link here).

According to Bayer, the billboard-sized posters and the buses are being paid for by “civilians,” by CÖF (Civil Összefogás Fórum, or Civil Initiative Forum), to be precise. When László Csizmadia, the leader of CÖF was approached by journalists about who is funding the event, he said that he is not authorized to answer the question. “This was a subject of discussion, we spoke about it, but I would prefer not to speak to this myself,” he said, before identifying Bayer as the person who is in possession of any such information.

The same lack of transparency is not afforded to one of the most vocal critics of the Hungarian government. As reported earlier, One Million for the Freedom of Press in Hungary, the grassroots group behind the anti-government protest is being investigated by the Hungarian tax authority. The officers of the government are interested not only in how two private individuals will do a proper tax accounting of donations sent to their bank accounts. They would also like to know the names of business or private individuals who may have helped them, as well as the rates they charged for any services provided to the opposition group.

It is no wonder, therefore, that some anti-government protesters are making somewhat unusual travel arrangements: they are going to try to infiltrate the buses headed to the pro-government rally. It’s easy, a communication from the organizers of the anti-government demonstration states :

“All you have to do is register for one of the group tours being organized from the countryside, get on the free bus and you will be on your way to Budapest, paid for by Fidesz! Then, once you are in Pest, just walk over to the Pest foot of Erzsébet Bridge,” the location of the anti-government demo. “And while you’re on the bus, don’t waste your time: clue in as many people as possible that they had been deceived by the current powers, and that they cannot expect a renewal of Hungary from the same people who are dismantling the rule of law” [8].


[1] Quote from Bertalan Havasi, press secretary of the Office of the Prime Minister: “ismereteim szerint a művészeti produkció, vagyis az ünnepi műsor része volt a lépcsőn álló emberek látványa.” At first, the payments to the “civilians” were off the books; once the scandal broke in the press, the company that hired the extras processed retroactive contracts for the job.

[2] In February, the Peace March became an official political association. “We are not North Korea: Peace March Moves On” – Hungarian link: http://mno.hu/belfold/nem-vagyunk-eszak-korea-megalakult-a-bekemenet-2012-egyesulet-1054313

[3] The billboards with the advertisements belong to Mahír, an advertising company owned by Lajos Simicska, leader of the governing party’s shadow empire of economic interests, and a personal friend of Viktor Orbán’s. Mahír is the Hungarian government’s preferred partner for governmental public relations campaigns. The cost of each billboard is between 30 and 60,000 HUF (between 135 and 225 USD) a month. Though no evidence exists that the Peace March billboards may have been part of any “governmental order,” the probes into this issue – directed, ultimately, at confirming that an organization or a private person paid for the enormous mobilization campaign – have only been met with stone-walling from the organizers (see above).

[4] The following are three examples from the investigative report (http://www.origo.hu/itthon/20120123-civilek-mellett-a-fidesz-is-szervezett-buszokat-a-bekemenetre.html). From Füzesabony, the cost was 1800 HUF instead of 4400 HUF on regularly scheduled buses, a 59% discount; these buses were chartered by government sympathizers without help from the local party office. From Mosonmagyaróvár, the cost was 1000 HUF, instead of 6600 HUF on a regular bus line, an 85% discount; it is not known who chartered the buses. From Tatabánya, the cost was 500 HUF instead of 2600 HUF, the regularly priced bus ticket, an 81% discount; Fidesz party office confirmed (unofficially) that they ordered the buses.

[5] Information about the reception in the Parliament was provided to the Polish demonstrators. However, the press department of the Hungarian parliament is not in possession of any information that such an event will indeed take place.

[6] Poet and political prisoner, the 1848 revolution started with his liberation. He was imprisoned in the Buda Castle, on the West side of the Danube and taken by the revolutionaries to the Pest side.

[7] http://www.echotv.hu/videotar.html?mm_id=148&v_id=12502 , quote starts at about 13:00.

[8] “Free Buses to the Milla Demonstration”: http://nemtetszikarendszer.blog.hu/2012/03/07/ingyenbuszok_a_milla_tuntetesre

The Nitty-Gritty For Joining The Protests: When and Where to Find A Protest in Budapest on March 15:

Anti-government demo: at 3 p.m., Pest foot of Erzsébet Bridge (a.k.a. Szabadsajtó út/Free Press Road); for updates check the Facebook page of One Million for the Freedom of the Press: http://www.facebook.com/freepresshun . The English-language translation of whatever goes on on the stage will be broadcast on an FM channel, so if you don’t speak any Hungarian, bring a portable radio.

Government/Fidesz celebrations: raising the flag: 8 a.m., Kossuth Square; remembrance of the events of March 15, 1848: 9 a.m., in front of the National Museum; rally and speech by Viktor Orbán: starting at 3 p.m., Kossuth Square; concert afterwards.

Peace March: awaiting arrival of Polish demonstrators from 2:30 to 3 p.m. on Széchenyi Square, in front of the Academy (Pest foot of the Chainbridge), upon arrival of the Polish demonstrators from the Castle, short march to Kossuth Square

The Polish Agenda: train with at least 700 Polish demonstrators to arrive at 6:50 a.m. to Nyugati Railway station (rest of them to arrive on buses and in cars); observe raising of the flag at Kossuth Square at 8 a.m., walk over to National Museum between 8:20 and 9 a.m., participate in remembrance in front of National Museum from 9 to 10 a.m., stroll to the Buda Castle at 10 a.m., participation in events held between Szent György and Kapisztrán Squares in the Castle district from 11 a.m. to noon, lunch from noon to 2 p.m. At 2 p.m., start of walk from the Castle to Kossuth Square, joining Peace March on Széchenyi Square on their way; participation in government’s rally at 3 p.m. on Kossuth Square, reception in Parliament afterwards.

The Extreme Right’s Event: 3:30 p.m. at Deák Square; followed by rock concert by P. Mobil at 4:45.

UPDATE: See the following about threats issued against the anti-government demonstrators by Hungarian neo-Nazi group Betyársereg:


Note that the above is intended as an intimidation, and that in all likelihood it says more about the person who posted it on Facebook than about any real danger facing those at the demonstration.

This entry was posted in Békemenet (Peace March), demonstrations, Fidesz, Hungarian government, Hungary, Imre Kerényi, Zsolt Bayer and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Bus Wars: Protest Tourism At Hungary’s National Holiday

  1. Andrei Stavilă says:

    Thursday seems to be a busy day. So we (and the cameras!) will be ready then. Could you please make a post with all the necessary informations (the hours when the demonstrations start, the exact places or routes, etc.?). It would be very important for non-Hungarian speakers. And for the future, I think it would be extremely important if you could announce in advance any important event that would take place in Budapest. There are a lot of us that want to witness and document them. Thanks!

  2. Spooky stuff. When a regime starts using financial incentives to attract supporters then it is either desperate or corrupt…

  3. Kirsten says:

    Thank you for this detailed information. I try to be around!

  4. Visitor says:

    Wow, foreigners getting involved in anti-government demonstrations? Talk about outside influences! This is a democratically elected government that was voted by a historic majority. Your Coup d’etat will fail….

    • Another visitor says:

      But, you have no problem with the right-wing Poles who are coming to support the Fidesz party? By the way, Fidesz and their coalition partners, the right-wing and backward Christian Democrats, actually scored just under 53% of the vote in the elections, their total vote representing only about a third of the Hungarian population.

      • Visitor says:

        Poles are brother cousins, not like French wannabes like Cohn-Benndit. You people always complain about their vote representing only 1/3 of the Hungarian population. Why don’t you get off your lazy butts and vote. You have only yourselves to blame for your failures. Obviously, your supporters didn’t turn out your show up to vote so keep quiet. Maybe in the next election, you people should do a better job of mobilizing your supports. You lost, deal with it in a democratic manner….

    • Roderick Beck says:

      It doesn’t matter whether it is democratically elected or not. The current government is curbing freedom of the press and the right to assembly.

      Democracy is not a tyranny of the majority.

      • Daniel says:

        “The current government is curbing freedom of the press and the right to assembly.”

        Why would you say that?

  5. enuff says:

    You have to give credit to peace march organisers for their organisational skills. Now if only Hungarian tourism board is as creative and “sophisticated” in their campaign to entice real paying foreign tourists…

    ” One Million for the Freedom of the Press: http://www.facebook.com/freepresshun
    This link leads to their facebook timeline which is overwhelming!
    I couldn’t find info. on the coming demo.

  6. Karl Pfeifer says:

    Visitor, why should foreigners be excluded? 1848-49 foreigners were welcome to fight for the Hungarian republic. The majority of the 13 martyrs of Arad were foreigners and did not speak Hungarian. Istvan Szechenyi did not speak Hungarian. He kept his diary in German.
    And nobody but the Hungarian people could change the regime V. Orban is installing in Hungary.

    • Marion says:

      So true, Karl. And the hypocricy of being outraged by the fact that foreign anti-government protesters will show up too, when thousands of foreigners are mobilised (and apparently paid) to join the pro-government protests. Jeez. I could go on…

      • It’s not only this, Marion. Foreigners are living in Hungary and are affected by Government’s decisions. So actually, foreigners in Hungary have all the rights to protest – just as Hungarians themselves: no more, no less (there is a big academic debate about the fact that citizenship should not be linked to ‘jus sanguinis’ or ‘jus solis’, but to residence – but I am not entering in this debate here; the big idea is that residence should give you the same rights as citizenship). In what concerns the French personalities, I see nothing wrong for a foreigner concerned about the democratic quality of an European country to make a statement or even to come to that country to protest. ‘State sovereignty’ is a mantra that starts to fade and to open the path to what really matters: individual’s (including foreigner’s) rights. And these rights are always claimed against governments.

      • Daniel says:

        No one was ever paid to be part of a Fidesz rally.


        For those of you, who have the chance to once be at one of the events, don´t miss it. Maybe afterwards you will understand why people spend time and money to join these happenings.

        And if you don´t, don´t be afraid. ask those around you.

      • Daniel,
        Just a quick note on some of the minimum requirements for commenting on this blog.

        You cannot state what is a blatant lie and present it in a fact. In fact, you should back up your claims whenever possible, especially when you are saying something as likely to raise suspicion as that nobody ever has been paid to participate in a Fidesz rally.

        I included references above to the story of the paid extras surrounding Viktor Orbán during his March 15 speech last year. That 500 people each were paid a sum of 2500 HUF is a matter of public record. No one denies it.

        This fact was confirmed by the prime minister’s office and by the company that “cast them” on an order by the Hungarian government; what is more, we also know that the government wanted to pay them under the table at first. The contract they signed retroactively is also part of the public record. I am not sure if you want to state the opposite out of some kind of youthful zeal or because it’s some kind of a propaganda task of yours to confuse fact with fiction about the Hungarian government’s misdeeds, and it doesn’t matter much either. But let’s just be clear that, instead of making your cause look better, lies like that reflect solely on you. The readers of the blog are smart enough not to fall for statements that so evidently raise a flag; the loss, eventually, is to your credibility throughout your comments to the blog.

    • Daniel says:

      Hungarians are a lovely volk. we warmly welcome everybody, especially those, who stood beside us in historys darkest hours.

      we just don´t like, if people from outside try to tell us, what to do.

      I mean don´t get me wrong. I know that for you think, we hungarians are stupid volks, who don´t know how to use our democratic freedoms and that we choose freely a tyrant to rule us and that you just want to help us get back to the right track. I get that. I trully do. And I wish we could do better, but to be honest: I just don´t think that is gonna work. The reason is very simple: we are not great in obeying. usually we disagree and totally overreact or rise up or fight, or what the hell do I know against those, who know it better, what is good for us… And I know… must be annoying to watch it from the outside. But thats just the way the hungarian mind works after countless and seemingly endless fights for our freedom and sovereignty.

      So you can either respect the democratic decision, Hungary has made and maybe try to understand it, or go on painting 2/3 of Hungary as immature for democracy.

      • Daniel, the simple truth is that in our inter-connected world, there are hundreds of organisms of inter-regional, continental and world cooperation and politics. Simply put it, because of them, the concept of sovereignty is massively changing in our days: you freely enter into a regional or continental body, you respect its rules. To enter the European Union, the Schengen space or NATO, to enjoy every good thing that these organizations can offer to their members but not to accept taking any responsibility that comes with the statute of membership is not a starter. If you want to become a monk you have to respect a monk’s way of life; if you want to live in a democracy you must have to respect democracy’s standards. And if you want to enter in one or another union of states you have to respect that union’s rules. It’s as simple as that. Your concept of sovereignty is a very pre-modernist one (and highly outdated, as a matter of fact).

  7. Pingback: Nationalfeiertag 15. März: 2000 Jubelpolen für Viktor Orbán, Milla ohne Notarzt? « Pusztaranger

  8. Karl Pfeifer says:

    A very strange idea: there are good foreigners, right-wing Poles, and on the other hand there are bad foreigners, French people.
    And yes there are the bad former communists, who are not enthusiastic about Viktor O. and on the other hand there are good Hungarians, who have been members of MSZMP (communist party) and accept now Viktor as their leader. In his government out of eight ministers 3 are former communists.
    During the Austro-Hungarian monarchy ethnic Hungarians were a minority in pre-Trianon Hungary. One of the most popular catholic personalities, bishop Ottokar Prohaszka, (+ 1927) was the son of a Czech father and a German mother and learned Hungarian only when he was a teeny. He became a Hungarian chauvinist and was an ideologue of Hungarian antisemitism.
    You can google Ottokar Prohaszka and Sandor Lezsak und find out what a great man Prohaszka was according to Lezsak, who is now vicepresident of Hungarian parliament.

  9. Daniel says:

    “During the Austro-Hungarian monarchy ethnic Hungarians were a minority in pre-Trianon Hungary.”

    yeah, first of all: that is a lie.

    secondly: thank God, the victorious nations fixed that with the treaty of trianon.

    well done.

    • Karl Pfeifer says:

      Daniel, without middle-class Jews and Germans who were “Magyarized” the ethnic Hungarians would have been a minority as I pointed out.

      “By the end of the century, the state apparatus was entirely Hungarian in language, as were business and social life above the lowest levels. The proportion of the population with Hungarian as its mother tongue rose from 46.6 percent in 1880 to 51.4 percent in 1900. The Magyarization of the towns had proceeded at an astounding rate. Nearly all middle-class Jews and Germans and many middle-class Slovaks and Ruthenes had Magyarized.”
      Source: “Encyclopaedia Britannica”

  10. Daniel says:

    yeah, ok. maybe i wasn´t clear.

    If you look at todays event you will also notice, that at the par parliament there were also young people standing behind Orban. Some of them were hostesses, who during the day were helping out inside the parliament (since it was open for visitors). These people (just like the musicians and other staff members) were of course paid. Lucky for us it is not communism anymore, where the Party just brings up a high school class on stage, when needed.

    Obviously when I wrote, that nobody was ever paid to participate in a Fidesz-rally, I thought of the crowd. Of the tens and hundreds of thousands, who gathered at such events. I´m sorry if I wasn´t clear enough.

  11. Lajos says:

    What an eventful day it was! Lots of people out on both sides today. Checked out a lot of blogs regarding the protests. I also saw some info on http://freehungarianvoice.blogspot.com/

  12. Elizabeth Csicsery-Ronay says:

    Prohaszka was not an anti-Semite. Yes, he was a Hungarian patriot. some people see anti-Semitism under the bed. You are so boring!

  13. Elizabeth Csicsery-Ronay says:

    It is ridiculous the idea that Fidesz paid people to come to their rallies. In the first place, do you think in this financially critical time they would have the money to throw around like that? and look at the numbers! 250,000 for Fidesz on March 15 and 400,000 for the Peace March. There is no way that they could have paid so many people. How naive and credulous can you be? And how is that the outside world swallows your nonsense? Incredible.

    I think March 15 showed that there is no real alternative to Fidesz. Look how many the opposition attracted. The socialists didn’t even dare gather in Budapest. They had a thousand or so. Gyurcsany had a couple of hundred. LMP about a hundred. Jobbik had a larger crowd, a couple of thousand. Milla is not a party, it was more a happening and attracted about 30,000 from all accounts. Try to face reality!

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