I consider this March 15th to be a true watershed in the history of the new democratic Hungary. Many of those who vividly remember 1989 and the dawn of a new political era believe that the promise of a second beginning has arrived. The end of the Viktor Orbán era is approaching. Those teachers and their supporters who spoke to about 50,000 people gathered in front of the parliament building in cold, rainy weather seem ready to follow through and, if necessary, go so far as eventually to declare a general strike.
As I have steadfastly maintained ever since the news of the teachers’ revolt against the Orbán government’s retrograde school system hit the media, this movement is defined by much more than the dissatisfaction of a handful of teachers. It is sowing the seeds of a general revolt against the system Viktor Orbán has methodically created in the last six years.
The beginnings are promising. At their first demonstration the teachers’ unions managed to get about 20,000 people to stand in the pouring rain, listening to inspiring speeches and ending their demonstration with five minutes of silence when one could hear only the rain drops falling on their umbrellas. It was uplifting. Even my most pessimistic friends had to admit that something very unusual was happening. The general apathy had been broken. The people had at last said, no more.
Of course, there were other earlier demonstrations that ended with a whimper. A few speeches, some very good, some not so good, after which the organizers asked the people to sing the national anthem and told the folks to go home. The crowd wanted more than that, and fewer and fewer of them went to these demonstrations. What’s the use? was the eventual reaction.
These organizers are different. István Pukli, Kata Törley, and Olivér Pilz are determined to see their protest movement play out to its logical conclusion. After the first demonstration they began organizing a new one which, they promised, would be even bigger than the first. It was this second demonstration that took place today and that impressed so many people. It was here that they announced their two demands of the government.
First, an apology from Viktor Orbán and János Áder by midnight on March 23 to “all those people they have humiliated in the last six years.” If there is no such apology, teachers nationwide will strike during one class and will ask parents and sympathizers to gather in front of the schools their children or grandchildren attend. If another week goes by without an apology, there will be a two-hour strike. The following week a three-hour one. All this, by the way, is illegal according to the new labor law enacted by the robot parliament of Viktor Orbán. This civil disobedience would spread until a general strike could be declared. According to Pukli, they have assurances from 950 organizations that they would join such a strike.
This demand for an apology will not be met. The organizers must know full well that Viktor Orbán will never publicly ask for forgiveness from the Hungarian people for his misdeeds.
The second demand is for the dismemberment of the round table headed by Undersecretary László Palkovics and his minister, Zoltán Balog. Future negotiations should be conducted by a member of the government who “has true competence to make decisions and who has control of the purse strings.” In the Orbán government there is only one person who can make decisions, Viktor Orbán himself, so this demand will not be met either. In addition, the negotiators on the teachers’ side demand that the official negotiations be conducted publicly, with the media present, which is a very wise move, knowing the government’s penchant for distorting the truth.
Since it is highly unlikely that either demand will be met, we can expect weekly strikes. As Pukli said after the demonstration, “it is only force that this government understands.”
And finally a few personal impressions. The speeches were only in small part about the teachers’ demands, although Olivér Pilz read their twelve points and asked the crowd to indicate whether they are ready to support them. That was their national consultation. The speeches were mostly about the freedom that was taken away from the Hungarian people and that must be taken back from this government. There was a great deal of emphasis on bravery, of not being afraid. They made the crowd repeat time and again: “they have no power over us.” Over and over one could hear that “we mustn’t accept” what the government forces on us. This was a massive demonstration against the regime of Viktor Orbán. It has taken a long time for the people to wake up, but I believe that we have finally arrived at a level of dissatisfaction that might soon enough become a tipping point.
Today’s national holiday was the perfect setting to launch an anti-government movement. March 15 is all about freedom, representative government, a parliamentary system. Everything that the Orbán system is not. So, not surprisingly, at this demonstration 1848 was the focal point. Mária Sándor, the nurse in black, performed brilliantly. She recited the first lines of Sándor Petőfi’s famous poem, “Rise Hungarians / Now or never,” and the crowd responded: “Now.” She also recited the lyrics of the Hungarian national anthem asking God to “extend His guarding arm above her,” and at the end she even sang the very popular by now protest song; “If I were a rose” by János Bródy. This woman, just a nurse who takes care of sick babies, has guts. To stand there and sing alone in front of this enormous crowd. It was amazing and very moving.
Yes, these people are different from what came before them. I wish them the best.