It is difficult to know what kinds of considerations are behind Viktor Orbán’s decision to cancel the Fidesz demonstration that was supposed to be held at the Astoria Hotel this Sunday. The occasion, besides being October 23, the fifty-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, was that it was five years ago on that very spot that Fidesz held another demonstration that turned out to be an important milestone in its road to power.
The demonstration five years ago was purposely held at a place that was perilously close to the area where not so peaceful extremist groups were staging a month-long vigil. That vigil was prolonged as a result of daily urgings by fiery Fidesz orators. It was clear that these extremist groups had an important role to play in Viktor Orbán’s plans. Anti-Orbán observers are certain that the Fidesz play book included what eventually happened. People leaving the Fidesz rally got mixed up with the extremists whom the police tried to hold back without much success. The rest is history.
Since the change of regime government parties have never held separate rallies on national holidays. So why did Fidesz decide to buck tradition? Because sometime back in July a Facebook group called One Million for Freedom of the Press announced their desire to assemble on Free Press Road (Szabadsajtó út). From the map below one can see that the distance between the very end of Szabadsajtó út at the Elizabeth Bridge and the Astoria Hotel at the corner of Kossuth Lajos utca and Múzeum körút is only 700 meters.
If Fidesz held a large meeting, the crowd would spill into Kossuth Street and inevitably the two largely antagonistic groups would meet. A dangerous situation. In addition, the anti-Orbán forces would have to walk through the Fidesz crowd in order to reach their demonstration which they have dubbed “I don’t like this regime” (Nem tetszik a rendszer).
But Viktor Orbán was adamant. Fidesz even refused to change the hour so as not to collide with the “I don’t like this regime” group. It looked as if Fidesz was actually worried that this gathering might grow into a very large demonstration against the current government. By holding their meeting that close and at the same time, most likely they were hoping to discourage people from attending the gathering on Szabadsajtó út. After all, who wants to be in the middle of a street fight, especially since the escape route is pretty much blocked by Fidesz supporters.
Then suddenly about two weeks after the initial announcement of the Fidesz rally came the news: there will not be a gathering because Viktor Orbán must attend the summit of the European Council on October 23. And of course, if there is no Orbán there cannot be a rally either.
And this is where things get confused. It was on October 10 that János Martonyi at the meeting of the foreign ministers of the European Union agreed to hold the summit on Sunday, October 23, Hungary’s national holiday. Most likely Hungary wasn’t in a position to insist on another date, but why did Fidesz decide to hold out for a whole week before Péter Szijjártó announced on October 17 that the mass rally is being cancelled? After all, they knew already on October 10 that Viktor Orbán would not be in Budapest on October 23.
The belated announcement probably followed a week of assessing whether without Orbán Fidesz could get a large enough crowd to compete or even surpass the anti-government forces. And the decision was that it couldn’t.
The last-minute decision to hold the Brussels summit on October 23 instead of a week earlier came as very bad news for Viktor Orbán, at least on the face of it. First, he loves to exploit national holidays where he can deliver fiery speeches. After all, there are still many people in Hungary who believe in him and his vision for the country. Second, in the last year or so he made it clear to his Hungarian audience that Hungary is not taking orders from Brussels. And here is an important Hungarian holiday and the prime minister of the country must spend it away from home and his people. On the order of Brussels. Jobbik has already been outspoken about what it thinks of Orbán’s Brussels trip and the cancellation of the Fidesz rally.
An opinion piece that appeared in Index pretty well claims that Fidesz was afraid of the anti-government demonstration and its own power to attract enough people. Thus, in fact, Orbán’s required attendance at the summit on the national holiday came as a blessing. They were most likely relieved that the rally could be cancelled.
There are signs of a growing fear that Fidesz can no longer draw such large crowds. In Magyar Nemzet an opinion piece was published on October 18, a day after the cancellation, that attacked the organizers of the anti-government demonstration in a way that could only be called savage. The author, Dávid Megyeri, claims that it is not the Fidesz regime that the organizers and their followers don’t like but democracy itself. He calls those who will attend “társutálkozók” (fellow haters) instead of “társutazók” (fellow travellers). Megyeri claims that the organizers and their followers actually liked the previous regime in which “defenseless women were attacked, police used rubber bullets and beat people until half dead.” They are “lamenting the lack of democracy” now, but on October 23, 2006 most likely they approved of the behavior of the beastly police. These people are “not demonstrating for democracy but against it.”
Why this vehemence against an amorphous Facebook crowd with a not terribly well defined ideology? Orbán knows only too well the potential power of crowds. He certainly doesn’t want the opposition to use the streets against him as he did against the previous government.