The Hungarian national holiday: March 15, 2011

The March 15th celebrations have a certain ritualistic aspect to them. Raising the flag, a military band, hussars, and the prime minister’s speech in front of the National Museum. For years the government and the opposition have been celebrating at different locations, and this year was no different. There are, however, a couple of cities where there is only one open meeting where politicians of all stripes are present. Miskolc and Szeged are two such sane places.

In Budapest there were a few changes in the routine this year. The mayor of Budapest used to speak in front of the statue of Sándor Petőfi close to the Danube but the new mayor, István Tarlós, felt that he needed a new location. After all, different party, different location. I understand that there were very few people in attendance. That may have been the result of the new site or perhaps because Mr. Tarlós is not a very likeable man.

As was expected, the crowd that waited for Viktor Orbán to deliver his speech in front of the National Museum was large. In yesterday’s Magyar Nemzet I was amused to read an article by György Pilhál saying that speeches today will be about current politics. At the end of the article he singled out MSZP. The party will celebrate in front of the Café Pilvax where in March 1848 the leading members of the radical youths, including Sándor Petőfi, put together their demands, starting with freedom of the press. But, he continued, one will be lucky if one hears the name of Petőfi in the socialists’ speeches. Well, one must be a bit more even-handed than the journalist of Magyar Nemzet. Viktor Orbán’s speech on March 15 last year was entitled “April 11: Our revolution.” Unfortunately, politicians on both sides use these historical occasions to deliver speeches about current politics.

About 20,000 people gathered in front of the National Museum. MTI reported that several people became ill because of the crowded conditions. The occasion would have been a great deal more uplifting if Origo, an on-line newspaper, hadn’t found out that “an unknown firm” hired about 500 university students to attend. They were promised 1,500-2,000 forints for showing up and clapping a bit. Rather embarrassing. These youngsters openly admitted that they have no interest in politics; they didn’t really want to listen to Orbán’s speech and they signed up only for the money. I guess the choreographers simply wanted to see a lot of young people surrounding Viktor Orbán.

The speech had its compulsory embellishments. Quoting the poem Sándor Petőfi wrote for the occasion is a must. So, Orbán repeated that “we swear that we will never be prisoners again” which was followed by enthusiastic applause and a number of commonplace references to the freedom-loving Hungarians over the ages. But then he moved on to the “important” things. He talked about twenty years of “wandering in the wilderness” while “we were searching for the Hungary of our dreams.” It turned out that Hungarians were looking in the wrong places. They were looking toward foreign models instead of finding the real answer at home: “in Magyarország, the country of Hungarians.” Once this discovery was made, Hungarians found each other at the elections last year. This reference to Magyarország as the country of Hungarians is a concept fraught with danger.

“We accepted the challenge of ending years of hopelessness; we made sure that the interest of the Hungarians is paramount; we bade farewell to the International Monetary Fund (big applause and ovation); we stood up for the Hungarian people when we put extra levies on banks (applause and ovation); we were ready to rescue the pension system from the hands of the sharks of the money markets (tőzsdecápák); we defended Hungary in the European Union (applause); we defended our homeland when base and untrue attacks organized from home were directed against her” (whistles and applause).

And if all this weren’t enough, he added that “in 1848 we didn’t tolerate the dictates of Vienna; in 1956 and in 1990 we didn’t tolerate the dictates of Moscow; and now we will not [applause begins already] allow anyone to dictate from Brussels or anywhere else (ovation, applause).” Keep in mind that it is the rotating president of the European Union who is speaking.

At this point in the speech I found a rather strange paragraph that somehow doesn’t fit. Orbán felt compelled to emphasize that “no Hungarian name” can be found among those who came up with the ideologies of national socialism and communism. “Therefore” Hungarians won’t tolerate any lecturing and they “expect respect for Hungary and the Hungarians from all (rhythmic clapping).” Historians of national socialism and communism most likely would argue with Viktor Orbán on this point, but my guess is that this odd paragraph is at least in part the Hungarian prime minister’s answer to his critics who question his democratic convictions.

It seems that Viktor Orbán is simply enamored with his own preamble (pardon, “national creed”) because he quoted rather extensively from it and his audience also liked this mumbo jumbo because they clapped even when most likely they didn’t have a clue what it was all about. For example, after the sentence about “the suspension of the historical constitution” or that “we don’t recognize the legal continuity of the communist constitution.”

But the most important theme was the uniqueness of the Hungarian soul on which a foreign body (he used the word for a car’s body) fits poorly. Hungarians shouldn’t try to follow foreign examples but must remain themselves. Well then, what on earth is Hungary doing in the European Union?

One can always say that this is just talk for domestic consumption but surely Viktor Orbán cannot be so naive as not to know that within a few hours his speech at least in part will be translated by the diligent members of the foreign embassies’ press departments. By tomorrow morning all western papers will report on his speech. What will the prime ministers and foreign ministers of the European Union think of him? How can he smile amiably and shake hands with the visiting dignitaries after this tirade?

Although the government is most likely terribly proud of the large crowd it managed to gather in front of the National Museum, it mustn’t forget in its celebratory mood that there were other crowds that were demonstrating against the government. Unfortunately, once again the opposition couldn’t get together and thus LMP and MSZP held separate demonstrations. Naturally, Jobbik also demonstrated alone. And there were those citizens who refused the participation of parties in their demonstration. They organized on Facebook and managed to get Adam Michnik, the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza and a former dissident, as one of their speakers. I might add that he was at one time a friend and comrade-in-arms of Viktor Orbán. Altogether these crowds were just as large as if not larger than the one that gathered in front of the National Museum. There were some who estimated the crowds to be at least 30,000 strong.

So what were the messages from the opposition’s demonstrations? Michnik warned Orbán: “Viktor, this road is leading to dictatorship!” The prime minister should really listen, although it is very possible that this is what he actually wants: a legally achieved dictatorship. Attila Mesterházy, head of MSZP, in his speech talked about “a constitutional coup d’état.” In brief, they focused on the fragility of Hungarian democracy whereas Orbán stressed nationalism and a “do-it-yourself” frame of mind. All the while the “sharks of the money markets” keep circling and Brussels continues to wield its influence.

March 15, 2011