Today an enormous crowd gathered on József nádor tér. It eventually swelled to the point that the beginning of the demonstration was already at the Clark Ádám tér on the Buda side at the Lánchíd while the last demonstrators were still at the Astoria Hotel, a good mile away from the Pest side of the Erzsébet híd. And while on Sunday only a handful of people gathered in Pécs, Miskolc, and Veszprém, this time there were much larger demonstrations, including one in Szeged. In Pécs the speaker was Tamás Mellár, a conservative economist at the University of Pécs who has been a harsh critic of the Orbán government’s economic policies. It is not a coincidence that larger crowds gathered in university towns. After all, young people and students would be most affected by the proposed internet tax.
Apparently the original proposal was so poorly prepared that, had it become law, an average computer user would have had to pay 65,000 forints a month just in taxes. Surely, this was total nonsense, but if the government does not consult with the leaders of the industry such a result is predictable. Then came the inevitable amendments when the Fidesz lawmakers try to fix the botched up proposals. At the end most people who went through the amended proposal still didn’t know how big a burden this new tax will be if it’s introduced. According to calculations, an average user will have to pay 10,000 forints in taxes–and that’s over and above the 27% VAT they already pay, the highest in the world. Ten thousand forints or $42.00 is a lot of money even for an American internet subscriber, but it is a serious financial burden for most middle-class Hungarians. Also, it is not clear whether this tax would be levied per household, per subscription to a service provider (internet and smart phone), or per electronic device.
But it is not really the size of the tax, although of course that is part of it. For the demonstrators it is a question of principle: the net is free. This is their lifeline to the larger world. It is part of a social network that, for example, made these last two demonstrations possible. It is there where within a few days the organizers received 210,000 likes, more than Fidesz has collected in who knows how many years. It’s not known whose brainchild this tax was, but it was a colossal political mistake. Rumor has it that it was the Great Leader himself who came up with the idea. But, people argue, how could Viktor Orbán make such a mistake? After all, his political instincts are impeccable, at least as far as knowing what moves the Hungarian Everyman.
What could have accounted for this political misstep, whoever made it? I talked about one possible explanation already yesterday: the Fidesz boys got old too fast. I think they aged prematurely because they are basically an intolerant, opinionated bunch. They lack an openness to anything new or different. They are bound by tradition. All that stuff about folk costumes, folk dances, folk motifs, the virtues of the Hungarian peasantry. They are a backward looking lot. I saw an interview with a man who most likely never sat in front of a computer who announced that he is in favor of the tax because “these people use it too much. The internet should be restricted. Above a prescribed level, it should not be accessible because it is not good for them.”
The tax is controversial even in Fidesz circles, but I doubt that anyone will dare tell Orbán that he is making a huge mistake. According to rumors, he is currently in Switzerland, insulated from the tense atmosphere in Hungary. These demonstrations will not stop. As the crowds chanted: “This is just the beginning!” This is not just against the tax but against the whole rotten system. They called the prime minister a traitor who sold his country to Putin and said that they don’t want anything to do with the Russians. They chanted: “Filthy Fidesz, filthy Fidesz!” They demanded democracy, a free country, and a free internet. And they want to belong to the European Union, from which László Kövér wouldn’t mind backing out slowly.
But this is only the political side of the controversy. What about the economic impact of the move? According to a recent article that appeared in The New York Times, only so-called developing countries impose damagingly high taxes on top of VAT or sales tax. As a report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation pointed out, “increasing taxes on information and communication technologies provides a significant drag on economic growth, and the losses accrue quickly over time.” Perhaps sanity will return and Viktor Orbán will see the light. Mind you, not too many people believe that. Klub Radio asked whether Orbán will retreat on the issue or not: only 20% of the callers answered in the affirmative. By now Hungarians know their prime minister.