Protests in Hungary
More anti-government protests, but little change from the prime minister
HUNGARIANS are taking to the streets. More than 10,000 gathered outside the parliament in Budapest on November 17th to protest against alleged corruption and the centralisation of power. Similar protests took place in other cities, including Miskolc in the east and Szeged and Pecs in the south. Several hundred Hungarians even gathered in London's Trafalgar Square. The habit is catching: this week also saw big protests in neighbouring Slovakia and in the Czech Republic.
Hungary's protesters were encouraged partly by America's rising criticism of their government. Six Hungarian officials have been banned from entering the United States on suspicion of corruption, a rare rebuff to a NATO ally. American officials refuse to name them, on privacy grounds. However Ildiko Vida, head of the tax authority, told Magyar Nemzet, a pro-government newspaper, that she was one. She strongly denies any wrongdoing.
Hungarian officials have asked for more information from the Americans. They reject claims that the country is sliding into authoritarianism. The protests are proof that Hungary remains a democracy, where people are free to express their opinion as long as they abide by the law, says Antal Rogan, parliamentary leader of the ruling right-wing Fidesz party.
This week's protests followed a bigger one on October 28th, when as many as 100,000 people filled central Budapest to demand the cancellation of an internet tax that they saw as an attack on free speech. The crowds were mostly young, educated and middle class, the sort of people that Fidesz needs to attract. And they forced a rare U-turn by the government, when Viktor Orban, Hungary's prime minister, said the internet tax would be dropped in its current form. Instead he would launch a “national consultation” to consider ways in which to tax online profits.
The latest protesters have a harder task because their demands, including the resignation of the government, are unrealistic. This year Fidesz has won national, local and European elections. As the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe noted, the victories were due in part to the government's tinkering with election rules in its favour. Yet the fractured liberal and left-wing opposition means that the alternative lacks appeal.
Demographic change is also working against the opposition. The Hungarian embassy in London says that around 100,000 Hungarian citizens live in Britain, but the true figure could be higher. Many expatriate Magyars are young, multilingual, educated and entrepreneurial. A good number have left Hungary because they see no future under Fidesz rule.
Mr Orban has long made clear his disdain for liberal norms, never more so than in his speech in Baile Tusnad, Romania, on July 26th when he said that Hungary would remain a democracy, but become an “illiberal state”. The European Union has proved unwilling or unable to rein him in. Instead, as the entry-ban row shows, the pressure is mostly coming from America. President Barack Obama recently bracketed Hungary with Egypt and Azerbaijan as countries in which civil society felt intimidated. Concerns are growing inside Fidesz about the wisdom of taking on the world's superpower.
Younger members of Fidesz are critical of the government's policies, says Akos Balogh, of Mandiner.hu, an influential conservative blog. Hungary is losing friends and allies, he adds. It will struggle on the European and world stage if it acts with the arrogance that Fidesz shows at home.