There were two noteworthy events during the March 15th celebrations, about which I will write more tomorrow. First, a scuffle broke out between Fidesz loyalists waiting for Viktor Orbán’s speech in front of the National Museum and a handful of demonstrators. It was described by the official Fidesz communiqué as “a clash between far-right and far-left elements.” I guess the government party felt it had to distance itself from Fidesz supporters who physically attacked the demonstrators as well as from those people who screamed “Go to Dohány utca,” the street where the “Great Synagogue,” the largest in Europe, is located. The other event was the large demonstration organized by civic groups but supported by all democratic parties with the exception of LMP. It was especially welcome that the organizers came out with a list of demands they propose to put forth for a popular referendum, which could be the first step toward a change of regime. But more about the national holiday tomorrow.
Today I want to call attention to two incidents which may not be earth shattering in and of themselves but which, I believe, signal a change in public attitude. The Hungarian people are beginning to exhibit civic courage.
The popularity of Viktor Orbán and the government is no longer what it was a year ago. Already last year, for the March 15th celebration, either Fidesz or the government hired university students to stand behind Viktor Orbán during his speech. At that point, I assume, they only wanted young faces. This year, however, there seemed to be genuine worry in government circles that the turnout for Viktor Orbán’s speech might be sparse. Robocalls urged people to attend. In addition, KLIK, the employer of all teachers, sent requests (some people claim that it was more an order than a request) to 375 high school principals all over the country to send one teacher and ten students to Budapest to listen to the prime minister’s speech. All expenses would be paid, and lunch would be included. Well, one high school, the Imre Madách Gymnasium in Vác, decided to announce publicly that they will not oblige because “they don’t support or organize student participation in political events.” Of course, some people might argue that a national holiday celebration is not a political event, but we know that this is not the case. Viktor Orbán’s audience comes from the party faithful and his words are addressed to his followers.
A lot of people welcomed this sign of civic courage, including the journalists of Válasz, which is certainly not an opposition paper. But others feared for the jobs of the principal and the 50 teachers who made that decision. And indeed, there was at least one attempt at intimidation by the Fidesz-KDNP mayor, Attila Fördős. He called the principal and vice-principal into his office and demanded to know what kind of “patriotic education” is going on in the school. He said that if he had the power, which thankfully he doesn’t, he would immediately fire them. As it turned out, although it was only the Imre Madách Gymnasium that had the courage to openly announce their opposition to the government’s crude methods, only 44 high schools obliged. The negative feelings toward this latest government or Fidesz ukase are perfectly understandable. There are far too many people who still remember when it was compulsory for students to attend such national celebrations, which included November 7, the anniversary of the Great Russian Revolution of 1917.
The other story is from the village of Gánt in Fejér County (pop. 860). To people familiar with Hungarian politics, the name Gánt immediately brings to mind Viktor Orbán’s father and his original business venture, a quarry he managed to buy with some financial help from his eldest son’s party. The quarry by now has been exhausted, and Győző Orbán would like to use the empty pit as a landfill site. His goal is to dispose of some 250,000 tons of refuse there a year, mostly bricks and concrete, which must be broken up by heavy equipment. Apparently about 1,000 tons could arrive daily and be processed on the spot. Many people who bought property nearby, close to a nature preserve, are mighty unhappy about the elder Orbán’s latest business venture.
So, the village of Gánt organized a forum to discuss the matter. To their surprise Győző Orbán, in the company of his youngest son Áron, showed up for the meeting. Orbán tried to convince the participants that everything will be fine, but they were adamant. The dust would settle everywhere–on their vegetable gardens, on their vineyards–and the noise eight hours a day would be unbearable. All hell broke loose when Győző Orbán announced that the property is his and he can do whatever he wants on it. After a while Győző Orbán left, followed by his son. He refused to answer questions from “malicious journalists” unless they give two million forints to the old folks home in Gánt.
But even before the departure of the Orbáns, those present at the meeting pretty well decided to fight the father of the prime minister. One of them already hired a lawyer, and the others put together, right on the spot, a sizable amount of money to cover the initial expenses. They also organized an association to represent their case most forcefully. I am convinced that a year ago such an encounter wouldn’t have happened. I’m also sure that Győző Orbán never in his wildest imagination thought he would be so forcefully opposed and at the end unable to prevent a law suit. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have shown up at the town meeting. It seems that times really are changing in Hungary. The prime minister’s father can no longer ride roughshod over the people, unopposed, to achieve his aim.