UPDATED 22 Dec – Eyewitness report from Budapest: Back on the streets

By Roland Lakatos, in Budapest | 14 December 2018

#O1G projected onto the Presidential Palace (photo via twitter)

Roland Lakatos is a student and civil rights worker in Hungary. These are his eyewitness accounts from Budapest.

Updated: Saturday 22 December 2018

We are back on the streets and our movement is growing. Friday night saw another wave of protests in Budapest.

There were two main protests and countless small actions.

Over 3,000 joined the Two-Tailed Dog Party’s protest. They are a tiny party that laughs at the establishment – using street art and graffiti to mock the political elite.

I was on the much larger protest organised by trade unions, protest groups and all the opposition parties. I believe it was 15,000 to 20,000 strong.

This time we blocked the Chain Bridge and then marched onto Sándor Palace in the Castle District This is the home of the president János Áder.

On Thursday he signed the hated “Slave Laws” and the law establishing the new administrative court system. This means that the new labour regulations begin 1 January 2019, and the administrative courts will commence their operation in 2020

Over the past few days there have been demonstrations in a number of cities:
Miskolc
Sopron
Szombathely
Zalaegerszeg
Vác
Kecskemét
Orosháza
Debrecen
Nyíregyháza
Kaposvár (Jobbik was the only organiser of this protest).

These protests are no longer just about the “Slave Laws”, they have become an anti government movement.

#01G is our slogan. You see it everywhere, on placards, graffitied on the streets and last night it was projected onto Sándor Palace.

It literally means “Orbán is a wanker”. In a country where people are terrified of the authoritarian state, this is a big step.

There are many hurdles in front of us.

Fidesz: The government is escalating its propaganda machine against us. It refuses to allow our spokespeople on its TV and radio channels. Last night a Fidesz spokesperson called us “Antifa SWAT teams”. We are also being labeled “foreign mercenaries paid for by George Soros”.

Jobbik: The fascist Jobbik are becoming more prominent in our protests. They are being welcomed onto platforms by all the major parties. All the leaders of the political parties support Jobbik’s claim they are no longer far-right but are now a “socially sensitive patriotic people’s party”.

Jobbik supporters are joining the marches in large numbers, they are building up a strong presence on social media and the young Jobbik MP Jakab Péter is fast becoming one of the key people of the movement.

Where next?

The head of the Alliance of Hungarian Trade Unions announced their “strike readiness” and say they will strike in late January. This is a long way off.

It is likely that these protests are the last ones this year – but the opposition parties and the trade unions announced that they are preparing the next large demonstration to take place shortly after the beginning of 2019.

A flyer produced by the Hungarian police. Yes we can protest, but No we cannot jump on cars.

Shinning the spotlight on Fidesz

Updated: Monday 17 December 2018

Sunday 16 December was our fourth night of protest in Budapest and was called “Merry Xmas Mr Prime Minister”. It was the biggest protest so far. I believe it was 15,000 maybe even bigger.

The Fidesz controlled media are saying it was just “a few hundred”. Look at the photos with this story and you can decide who is telling the truth.

The protests began as a response to the government’s new labour laws, but now the central demand is for the restoration of democracy and for Viktor Orbán to resign. People carried posters saying “All I want for Xmas is democracy” and “Independent courts”.

There are now five demands of the movement.

1. End the “Slave Law” – see below
2. Police off the streets
3. End the new court system
4. Independent media
5. Support the Office of the European Prosecutor

The protests are spreading: tonight there were marches in Pecs, Szeged, Miskolc and Debrecen.

The march in Budapest assembled in Heroes’ Square and marched in freezing weather (it is minus 4 here) to Kossuth Square opposite the parliament.

The rally platform was given over to women speakers, most are MPs (this is very encouraging given the levels of chauvinism). They led the protest and all wore white woolly hats.

However the political parties are trying to take over our marches and control them.

The speakers I heard were Bernadett Szél MP (independent Green), Ildikó Bangó MP (MSZP – Socialist) and Klára Nagy (university students representative).

The terrible thing about tonight was the fact that Andrea Varga-Damm from Jobbik also spoke. This is a break from the previous three protests and the student protests earlier in the year when Jobbik were denied speakers.

The beginning the rally was relatively quiet, those running it did all they could to avoid the troubles of the previous three protests. But the crowd became angry shouting down the platform speakers. There were chants of “Strike, Strike, Strike” and “Time for Action”.

Even before the rally ended groups were preparing new marches.

The last speaker was Anna Donáth from Momentum (liberal/conservative party), she captured the mood of the marchers saying:

We will not tire. We won’t go home. Today we are twice as many as yesterday. We are growing day by day.

This was seen as a signal to march off again.

There were two main protest groups, one headed for the national broadcaster MTV and the other to block the bridges. Small groups of anarchists headed off to fight the police.

I joined the protest which marched to the MTV HQ – a mouthpiece of Orbán. The MPs that joined us there delivered a letter to MTV demanding the media reports our movement and for an independent media.

Brief observations about Sunday

Police: The police have used levels of violence against the protestors not seen since 2006. Today they did not use tear gas and pepper spray. They deployed a new softly softly tactic. I believe they can see the protests are growing and are scared to set off a major incident. However the police did use teargas outside the MTV building and pepper spray against the anarchists.

Fidesz: Fidesz are using the media they control to either ignore our demonstrations or abuse us. There are three big lies.
1. The protests are small.
2. They are led by communists who hide behind the Euro Flag.
3. We are paid by George Soros. It was reported that tonight that some thugs chanted “Jews go home” at people leaving the protest. Fidesz are prepared to use antisemitism to break up our protests.

Jobbik: In 2006 Jobbik won over a section of the anti-socialist government protests because they were militant, well organised and provided leadership to those protesting against corruption. Their numbers are growing on the protests and they are openly carrying their flags. During last winter’s student protests they didn’t come into the squares. Now their members are standing at the front of the protests with their flags.

Finally we are a new movement and we are relatively weak after decades of Soviet rule and market capitalism. We do not have the strength or the political experience of the French “gilets jaunes”. We also have strong fascist forces and a nationalism which is very destructive.

Activists at are union are meeting tomorrow, we are going to discuss what happens next and what do we do about Jobbik.

The Fidesz controlled media have labelled us the “Mercenaries of George Soros”, tonight we chanted “Fidesz, the mercenaries of big business.”

The women speakers lead the march – note the Jobbik flags at the front

On the march

One of the breakaway marches

Report of 13 December protests

Last night something was born in this country. The time to act has arrived. The time to get up from the couch and go out into the streets is here. We have to show that we have had enough. We have to show that we are not scared and that we won’t be slaves.

Yesterday afternoon this call to arms was put out by activists opposing the Fidesz government’s new labour laws. The response was better than most of us could have hoped. For six hours the city of Budapest witnessed protests and riots of a size and militancy the country has not seen since 2006.

The protest began at 8pm and there were marches all over the city. Kossuth Square opposite the Hungarian parliament was occupied. Many of the bridges over the Danube were blocked. The largest protest was on the Széchenyi Chain Bridge. The Antall József Rakpart and other main roads were blocked and crossroads were blocked.

I was originally at Kossuth Square, where at around 9pm the police attacked our protest and arrested András Fekete-Győri, one of the organisers of the protest in the square. The police then used tear gas in an attempt to clear the square. For the next four hours there were running battles with the police.

The bulk of Thursday night’s protests were young workers and students. They chanted “Fidesz are Scum”. The demonstrators finally dispersed at 2am, pledging to march again tomorrow night.

What began as a movement against the government’s new labour laws has now turned into a rebellion to remove Viktor Orbán’s reactionary Fidesz government.

The “slave laws”

The spark that detonated the protests was the introduction of Fidesz’s new labour regulations. Our trade unions call them the “slave laws”.

Currently bosses in Hungary can force their workers to work a maximum 250 hours a year of compulsory overtime – and unbelievably the employers can withhold these overtime payments for up to a year.

The new bill is horrific. It allows employers the right to demand 400 hours of compulsory overtime a year. And instead of paying for this overtime within one year, the employer can postpone payment for three years. One trade unionist explained the reality of the new law:

Our company has already told us that instead of working a five-day week I will now have to work a six-day week. I already have to wait nearly a year to get my compulsory overtime payments – now the government says I might have to wait three years.

As you can imagine this is a deeply unpopular law. A gang of young protestors who were setting bins on fire ran past me shouting, “Don’t worry this work is free.”

The wave of protests began last Saturday (8 December 2018) when up to 10,000 trade unionists marched against the bill. They were joined by students protesting against the closure of the Central European University (CEU).

The Hungarian parliament has seen all the opposition parties united in their attempts to stop the bill. The delaying tactics has seen the speaker of the House taking the unprecedented step of threatening to jail opposition MPs.

On Wednesday night (12 December 2018) a spontaneous protest saw thousands take to the streets and there were sporadic clashes with the police.

Fidesz – Hungary’s illiberal party

Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party is an authoritarian far right populist party. It has ruled Hungary since 2010. During this time it has passed laws undermining the judiciary, the media and democracy. It has also encouraged racism against Roma people and waged an antisemitic campaign framed around the figure of the Hungarian-American Jewish billionaire and philanthropist George Soros.

Incidentally Soros also helps fund the CEU. Orban built a wall across Hungary’s boarders to stop migrants entering the country in 2015.

The state is using several tactics to undermine the protest. First it is using the large and powerful media network it controls to undermine the protests. TV channels claim that only a few hundred anarchists are involved.

And Fidesz spokespeople are using antisemitic tropes, claiming that Soros’s organisations are behind the protest

Secondly the police are using unprecedented levels of violence, including pepper spray and teargas to attack the crowds.

Finally the government is saying it has no choice but to introduce these laws – Europe’s bosses say they need them.

The groups behind the protests

The trade unions: Up until 1989 the unions were mouthpieces for the Hungarian Communist state, and since the transition to a free market economy the union movement has been emaciated by privatisation and de-industrialisation.

Hungary has a relatively low level of union density – probably less than 10%. Trade unionism is also fragmented: there are four competing confederations. But although it is early days, the struggles are uniting the rank and file activists in Budapest and forcing the unions to cooperate with each other.

Momentum:This is a new group. Like so many European social democratic parties the Hungarian MSZP is in serious decline. Before 2010 it ran the government but it was undermined by a political scandal and rebellion in 2006 and was further damaged by the 2008 economic crisis and its pro-privatisation policies.

The MSZP is now only the third biggest party in the Hungarian parliament behind the fascist Jobbik.

Momentum is attempting to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the MSZP is. It has no connection with the UK group of the same name.

Momentum was formed in 2017 and is a pro Europe liberal-conservative party.

Its supporters have played a prominent part in the protests.

Students: The student groups are the militant heart of the movement. One of the key organisations in the colleges is called Szabad Egyetem, which developed out of the closure of CEU.

In the run-up to the 2018 Hungarian general election, students organised a number of large protests against the Fidesz government. Their key demand was for a progressive independent education system.

Politically most students are not affiliated to any of Hungary’s parties and many are influenced by autonomous politics. Most are fiercely pro-EU, which they see as a block to Orban.

The student organisers have had Roma speakers on their platforms. I believe they are the first group to take up the question of Roma civil rights. It is a joy to see the Roma flag being carried by activists.

Jobbik: Jobbik is a vicious fascist party that has used its paramilitary wing (the Hungarian Guard) to attack Roma communities, Jewish conferences and Budapest Pride.

Over the last few years it has claimed that it is no longer a fascist party, moderated some of its more extreme policies and disbanded the Hungarian Guard.

No one should be fooled by these cosmetic changes. Only last week Jobbik MP and former deputy group leader István Száva, announced that he was going to resign his parliamentary seat following the release of a sound recording containing antisemitic comments and details of an alleged assault.

Jobbik members have been heavily involved in the protest. They led the protest on the
Széchenyi Chain Bridge. But so far they have kept away from the student and Momentum protests.

Jobbik supporters blockade the Szechenyi Chain Bridge in central Budapest.

Jobbik emerged out of the 2006 uprising against the MSZP government and it will be hoping that recent events will increase its popularity and undermine its main political competitor, Fidesz.

It is a fact that Jobbik members are active in the protests. That has been enough to put some people off from joining them. But my view is that if you turn your back on the movement they will definitely take control of it.

I believe we have to build the protests as big as we can and at the same time challenge them.

During the student protests earlier in the year, just having Roma speakers on our platforms was enough to drive the most hard core Jobbik supporters away.

Our committees must campaign to ensure that no Jobbik supporter is elected and lastly at or rallies we have to challenge their racist narrative. It’s a horrible job but we have to do it.

Where next?

Further protests have been called for the weekend. Some activists are calling on people in other cities and towns to stage protests.

The unity between the trade unions and the students is very encouraging. Again the best activists are calling for greater worker-student cooperation and the setting up of joint committees of action.

Finally many activists including trade unionists are linking up the issues and are calling on the government to go.

Of course this is a big fight but here is a real sense that the “Yellow Vest” movement has come to Budapest.

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