Violence erupted during a political protest the night of Sept. 18 in Budapest, Hungary — the country's first severe political discontent since the Soviet yoke was cast off in 1989. Though the instability probably will continue, the developments highlight the Hungarian government's stability, not its vulnerability. The controversy arose from the Sept. 17 leaking of an audiotape of a May speech given by Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany and some newly elected Socialist members of parliament, in which Gyurcsany pressed upon the legislators that the Socialists needed to do a much better job of managing the country's economic affairs. On the prime minister's watch the country's budget deficit ballooned to 10.1 percent of gross domestic product, and the country's quest to join the euro was about to be delayed, perhaps indefinitely. In an expletive-riddled tirade, Gyurcsany said, "I almost died in the past year and a half, having to pretend that we were actually governing. Instead, we lied in the morning, at night and in the day. I don't want to do this any more! Either we do [the austerity reforms], and you have the right person to do it, or you can pick someone else." Shortly thereafter, the Socialist-led coalition government enacted a series of harsh austerity measures.
The day after the tape was leaked, protests began throughout the country, with the largest ones occurring in the capital, Budapest. Reports of the size of the Budapest protest range from 500 to 10,000, but all reports agree on the following: Late in the night, 200-300 protesters broke away and attempted to force the state television station to air their demands, which included a call for Gyurcsany's resignation. When the station refused, the protesters stormed the building. Police attempting to prevent the storming were pelted with cobblestones and bottles, resulting in about 125 injuries — mostly of police, who, unlike the protesters, did not respond with violence. The police first fell back into the building, but later abandoned it. Damage from the mob was largely limited to the one-block area where the TV station was located. By morning the crowds had dispersed and Szabadsag Square — where the unrest occurred — was closed to foot traffic, but by midafternoon a new crowd of 500 assembled in Kossuth Square, outside of the parliament building. The possibility of a second night of protests, perhaps including violence, looms large, though the government has been funneling additional forces into the capital throughout the day to ensure order. The big question is: Who leaked the tape of the speech, and why? Theories run the gamut, from reporters seeking a story to dissident socialists who feel austerity programs break with socialist values, to Gyurcsany allies — perhaps even Gyurcsany himself — wishing to convince the people a new era of government honesty and responsibility is needed. If it is the latter — and the government's agile, almost Reaganesque, public management of the crisis seems to support the idea it was prepared for the speech's leak — these Socialist strategists certainly underestimated the vehemence of the public reaction. But politically, it appears the worst of the unrest has already passed. The center-right opposition Fidesz has proven unable to capitalize on the leak, and understandably so. Fidesz and its other allies on the right of the political spectrum, while wanting to be critical of the government, are trapped by ideology and history. It is the right that is supposed to be the bastion of financial responsibility, so Fidesz cannot attack Gyurcsany for the austerity package, only for lying about the need for it during this spring's campaign. Fidesz also cannot endorse or assist the protests now that they have turned violent, particularly since some of those violent protesters' demands indicated they were from the right end of the political spectrum. The last time real protests in Hungary took place was in 1989 — but the last time there was substantial violence in Hungary was when the Soviets crushed the 1956 revolution. That event was the hallmark of modern Hungarian political thought, and to side with violence is to be Soviet in the Hungarian mind. Put another way, the police's decision last night to not reply to bottles with bullets put Gyurcsany on the moral — and from Fidesz point of view, ideological — high ground, and all Fidesz can do is quietly (if bitterly) condemn the violence, a position that implicitly supports the country's prime minister. On Sept. 19, the Hungarian parliament — with support from all five parties currently in parliament, including Fidesz — passed a resolution condemning the use of violence as a political tool. Furthermore, the Hungarian Constitution does not allow a simple vote of no confidence to force elections as is the case in most European parliamentary democracies. The Hungarian system is instead modeled off the German system. For the government to be recalled involuntarily, those supporting a no-confidence vote must be able to supply a new government. For that to happen within the current parliament, Gyurcsany's junior coalition partner, the Alliance of Free Democrats, would have to abandon him. Statements Sept. 19 from Alliance leaders indicate that is not about to happen. Gyurcsany is a socialist, and if there is a political danger to him it will come not only from within his coalition government, but from his own socialist party. So far, the party is holding together and it probably will continue to do so. Remember that Sept. 18 was not the first time the Socialist parliament members first heard Gyurcsany's speech; they heard it in May, when he gave it. For the left, the speech is not a surprise — it is history. All Gyurcsany needs to do to survive is to remind his people of that fact.