Everybody was waiting to see what the new parliamentary police force, created to keep order in the House, would do once the spring session of parliament convened. Well, we have the answer. They will interfere with citizens’ freedom of speech even if the protest is outside of their jurisdiction. On the other hand, the new force will assist “civic groups” who want to “defend” the government from its own citizens. Not exactly an auspicious beginning.
This was the second time that a few hundred people embarked on a walk in the dead of winter to call attention to the extreme poverty that exists in certain regions of the country. Just to give an idea of the seriousness of the situation, out of the seven regions in Hungary six are among the poorest regions of the European Union. That’s one of the reasons that Hungary is receiving relatively generous subsidies from Brussels for the next seven years. The Hungarian government is supposed to do something to alleviate the unspeakable poverty, backwardness, and unemployment in these regions. I have don’t have high hopes that the money will be well spent.
Last year there was only one hunger march. The participants came from the region around Miskolc in the northeastern part of the country. This year, the decision was made to have not one march but eleven starting off from different parts of the country and converging on Budapest. MSZP joined the organizers, as one would expect from a social democratic party. Fidesz mayors and activists kept provoking the people walking through their towns. For example, government sympathizers threw rolls at the marchers. We might find this kind of behavior more than low, perhaps even disgusting, but such unfeeling boorishness is part and parcel of Fidesz politics.
From day one Gábor Kubatov, the infamous campaign manager of Fidesz, labelled the hunger marches the “power hunger march of the socialists.” CÖF (Civil Összefogás Fórum), an allegedly independent organization that has been responsible for organizing the peace marches on behalf of the Orbán government, liked Kubatov’s label and decided to wait for the marchers in front of the parliament building with a very professional looking banner reading “Greetings to the marchers for socialist power hunger.”
When Népszabadság inquired from Sándor Csizmadia, the chairman of CÖF, whether permission was asked and/or granted to put up the banner, the head of CÖF announced that “the organization didn’t ask permission because it was put up as part of a spontaneous flash mob.”
But what Csizmadia and other older organizers of CÖF don’t seem to realize is that with modern technology, especially those pesky omnipresent cell phones, lying is becoming increasingly difficult. Someone who writes a blog called “The heart of the city” (A város szíve) just happened to be zooming by when he noticed that workers from a professional banner firm with the assistance of the parliamentary police were putting up the CÖF banner. One can clearly read: Házőrség (Parliamentary police) on the back of the blue-uniformed policeman standing by.
A day later Milla decided to put up their own much more modest banner. Hand made, not professional like CÖF’s. And what a difference between the two messages. While CÖF’s text demeaned the four million Hungarians who live below the poverty line, Milla’s text read “Az ország házon kivül van.” It is subtle message that Milla’s activists can be proud of. For those who don’t know Hungarian here is a brief language lesson. In Hungarian the name of the parliament building is “országház,” literally “house of the country.” Thus, Milla’s banner said “the country is outside of the House.”
The subtlety of the banner’s message didn’t impress an official in civilian clothes who rushed out of the building and ordered Szelim Simándi, a political scientist and Milla activist, off the ladder. But Simándi and the others who were assisting him were not easily intimidated. As someone wrote in an opinion piece, these guys are not like the youngsters in the Kádár regime. After all, Szelim was born in 1988. He knows his rights. He told the unnamed member of the police force of the House that he has no jurisdiction over the area where Milla is planning to put up the banner. Here is the scene, although surely our unnamed policeman in civilian clothes is not happy with it. He even wanted to forbid a newspaperman from taking a picture of him.
What followed is truly bizarre. Photos, video, and eyewitnesses don’t convince the press department of the Hungarian Parliament that lying is not the best response to being caught red handed. The official communiqué stated that “no steps were taken in the case of either banner because the posts on which the banners were attached are outside of the territory that is under the supervision of the house police.” Yet at the same time Szelim Simándi received an e-mail from someone (Laszlo.Polyak@parlament.hu) in which he was told that because the Office of the Parliament/Országgyűlési Hivatal (the head of the office is László Kövér) didn’t receive a request from him to place the banner in front of the building Simándi will have to pay a 107,400 Ft fine. Plus he will have to remove the banner.
Apparently, at least this is what the Office of the Parliament claimed, they also fined CÖF for their transgression. Not surprisingly the Milla activists don’t believe them and asked their supporters to write to Laszlo.Polyak@parlament.hu and ask for a copy of the letter sent to CÖF. That is, “if you are curious.”
I have the feeling that Mr. Polyák’s mailbox has been jammed since this request. I’m also certain that no letter was ever sent to CÖF. Moreover, one can always produce one ex post facto.
This incident demonstrates how the Orbán government can manipulate public opinion by financing and otherwise assisting a phony “civic” organization that is actually an arm of the government that serves up its own propaganda. At the same time the government does everything in its power to restrict the movement of the opposition. Szelim Simándi’s interview on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd is definitely worth watching.
By the way, Milla is organizing a demonstration in front of parliament for Monday and is asking for hundreds of banners to protest the government’s underhanded behavior in this case.