New Protest Groups Emerge in Hungary

7 MINS READNov 17, 2014 | 10:17 GMT
New Protest Groups Emerge in Hungary
Protesters hold flags with portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Orban during an anti-government rally on Nov. 9 in Budapest.

The collapse of the two-party system and the lack of strong opposition forces are leading to the emergence of street activism and protest groups in Hungary. In general these anti-establishment groups lack ideological and institutional cohesion. In the past, most of them were single-issue groups that either disappeared after the debate on that specific issue ended or were absorbed by the traditional parties.

In the coming months and years, the slowing of the Hungarian economy and Budapest's need to apply controversial measures will create a fertile ground for new protest groups. However, these groups have yet to solidify their foundation. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's strategy is to create a strong government that is as distant from Europe as it can be without breaking ties, and has a strong relationship with Russia without completely aligning with Moscow. If the street movements manage to survive, they will add another layer of complexity to Hungary's fragile balance.

Between the late 1990s and 2010, Hungary had a relatively stable two-party system, with the center-right Fidesz and the center-left Hungarian Socialist Party competing in the general elections (in 2002, Fidesz got 41 percent of the vote and the Socialists 42 percent; in 2006, Fidesz got 42 percent and the Socialists 43 percent). However, a series of corruption scandals involving the Socialists led to a massive loss of popular support for the party and a significant increase in support for Fidesz, which received almost 53 percent of the vote in 2010.

The crisis in the center-left led to a fragmentation of opposition forces in Hungary and the consolidation of Fidesz's power (which it used to strengthen its presence in Hungary's media, economy and judiciary). This situation helped Orban get re-elected in 2014 when he competed against a fragile coalition of center-left parties called Unity, which received roughly 26 percent of the vote. The discrediting of the traditional political elites also contributed to the rise of the far-right Jobbik party, which was created only a decade ago and has a strong anti-establishment platform.

New Means of Expression

With the traditional opposition in crisis, Hungarians are looking for new ways to make their voices heard. During the past few years, the number of protest movements with no direct affiliation to mainstream parties has grown. Most of these movements were born to protest a single issue and lost their momentum shortly after their issue disappeared from the headlines. One such group was One Million for the Freedom of the Press in Hungary, commonly known as Milla, which was created in early 2011 to oppose Orban's attempts to exert greater control over the media. Peter Juhasz, a young entrepreneur, led Milla after he began criticizing the government on his Facebook page. The group held relatively large protests in Budapest in January 2011, and other protests in March and October that same year. However, lacking real leadership and a coherent platform, the movement slowly lost momentum. More important, Fidesz was at the peak of its power and passed the controversial media legislation Milla had protested. 

Another problem these groups face is the temptation to form alliances with the mainstream parties. In early 2014, Milla and other smaller groups joined Together 2014, an alliance of center-left parties led by former Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai. The alliance later decided to join forces with the Socialist Party to compete against Fidesz in the general elections of April. Juhasz criticized this alliance and threatened to leave the party. In the election, Together 2014 won only three seats in the Hungarian parliament.

Something similar happened with Politics Can Be Different, an alliance of environmental nongovernmental organizations and anti-corruption groups that decided to form a political party to compete in the general elections of 2010. The party performed relatively well, garnering 7.5 percent of the vote, and entered the parliament. However, Politics Can Be Different came under pressure from opposition parties to form an alliance in 2014, and the party split. A weakened version of the party barely passed the electoral threshold in 2014 (5 percent) and got four seats in the Hungarian parliament.

Hungary's Anti-Tax Activists

In late 2014, a proposal by the Hungarian government to introduce a tax on Internet use led to the creation of a new social movement, A Hundred Thousand Against the Internet Tax. Balazs Gulyas, a 27-year-old political blogger, founded the group. In late October, the movement held two large protests (according to unofficial estimates, some 100,000 people took to the streets in Budapest on Oct. 26) that forced Budapest to withdraw its Internet tax proposal. Then, on Nov. 4, the group held a smaller protest (some 10,000 people, according to Hungarian media) to demand the resignation of the head of the tax agency after accusations of corruption emerged. Although the Hungarian government rejected the demand, it was the third large protest against the Fidesz administration in less than a month.

A Hundred Thousand Against the Internet Tax includes a heterogeneous group of students, entrepreneurs and left-wing activists (some of its exponents include a web designer, a philosophy student and a theater director). Like Milla, it was born as a Facebook page. Some of its members have links to the Socialist Party, but the group claims to be against the entire political system, not just Fidesz. Since its success at blocking the Internet tax, the group has been debating its next steps, with some members saying that the group is in the process of "creating a new platform to voice dissent."

Street Movements' Political Challenges

Because protest movements often lack cohesion and generally disappear soon after their creation, street activism has not translated into real electoral strength in Hungary. Most of these movements lose their credibility when they stop operating as movements to become formal parties. In addition, most of these groups are born in Budapest and fail to attract support from smaller cities and agricultural regions. To survive, they will have to expand beyond Budapest and attract middle-class voters who are disenchanted with Fidesz.

Fidesz remains the most popular party in Hungary. However, recent protests and corruption scandals have harmed the party. Support for Fidesz fell from 52 percent in the 2010 general elections to 44 percent in the 2014 general elections. Opinion polls show that the party's popularity dropped to 29 percent in November from 32 percent in October. Some of these votes are going to Jobbik (which has roughly 14 percent of popular support) and smaller parties in the center-left. But the Socialist party is still in a deep crisis (showing support at around 7 percent), and a homogeneous opposition has yet to emerge in Hungary.

Hungary held general, municipal and European elections in 2014, which means that Fidesz's power will not be challenged in an election soon (no elections are scheduled for 2015). However, the government in Budapest is trying to reduce spending and improve its fiscal situation, which means that new controversial measures (such as new taxes or the lifting of some subsidies) probably will be approved next year. As a result, more anti-establishment groups will have a chance to emerge. Their main challenge will be evolving from single-issue movements and developing more institutionalized structures.

Between Russia and the West

The Hungarian government will have to deal with these protest groups as it faces scrutiny from the West for its ties with Russia. Over the past few months, the U.S. government criticized the political situation in Hungary, and the U.S. charge d'affaires in Budapest even participated in the Internet tax protests. In October, the United States issued a visa ban for six Hungarian officials over cases of alleged corruption. This has put Budapest in an uncomfortable situation, because the Fidesz government is divided between supporters of closer ties with Moscow and supporters of Hungary's membership in NATO and its relationship with Washington.

Hungary is interested in maintaining a good relationship with Russia to attract investment, particularly in the energy sector (Hungary and Russia recently signed a nuclear deal, and Budapest supports the Gazprom-sponsored South Stream pipeline). However, Hungary is also dependent on financial assistance from the European Union and wants political and military assistance from the United States. This need for assistance explains why Budapest's reaction to the recent criticism from the United States has been unusually mild and why Orban voted in favor of sanctions against Russia in response to the events in Ukraine. Orban is involved in a permanent balancing act — at home between forces in the left and in the right, and abroad between a more assertive Russia and a weakening European Union.

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