New power struggle begins in battle-scarred Budapest

Thu, Nov 15, 2012, 00:00

Budapest Letter:The calm surface of Hungarian society hides a deep unease that lies beneath

Fifty-six years ago, swathes of Budapest lay in ruins after Red Army tanks crushed a popular uprising against Soviet domination. About 2,500 people were killed and thousands more were injured and arrested.

About 200,000 people fled a country that would continue to be run by Kremlin-backed communists until 1989.

Many Budapest facades still carry the scars of 1956, but this city wears its bullet-holes as badges of honour. Europe has few riverscapes to rival the Danube’s grand sweep between Buda and Pest, beneath the gaze of parliament and the former royal palace.

The doomed revolution divided Budapest into freedom-fighters and traitors, patriots and collaborators.

Today, politics again divides Hungary as surely as the Danube cleaves its capital.

On October 23rd, hundreds of thousands of Hungarians rallied by the river to commemorate the start of the 1956 revolt and express sharply opposing views on the state of the nation.

At a huge pro-government rally beside parliament, prime minister Viktor Orban lambasted the Socialists who ran Hungary before him, and EU and other foreign officials for meddling in Budapest’s affairs and defending “crooked financial capitalism”.

About a mile down the riverbank, demonstrators denounced Orban as the big- gest danger to Hungary, accus- ing him of undermining demo- cracy to cement power for his conservative government, which took office in 2010.

Both sides waved the national flag and claimed the legacy of 1956.

Orban portrays himself as defender of the nation against malign foreign forces and their treacherous Hungarian allies; if in 1956 it was the Soviets and their local lackeys, now it is EU and IMF bureaucrats and venal multinationals that are supposedly throttling Hungary.

He insists he is using his democratic mandate to sweep away the last vestiges of communism and clean up the crony capitalism that the Socialists built in its place.

The opposition claims that Orban has allowed corruption to flourish and that he prizes personal power over the national unity that should flow from the memory of 1956.

They accuse him of dividing the nation and picking fights with the EU and IMF to distract attention from his failure to revive the economy; and they despair that the US and much of Europe now see Budapest as a problem.

The surface of Hungarian society is calm and visitors are unlikely to be disturbed by the divisions and deep unease that lie beneath.

They are revealed though in the rapid rise of the far-right Jobbik party, which came third in the last election, in flashes of violence against Roma and in the way mainstream politicians see their task as nothing less than national salvation.

Once more the talk is of who is a “true Hungarian” and a “real patriot”.

Orban says he is waging an “economic freedom fight” and sees his Fidesz party’s defeat of the Socialists in 2010 as the nation’s “first great step of moral renewal”.

On October 23rd, a challenger stepped forward to tell the opposition rally that he was forming a broad anti-Orban alliance called Together 2014, to bring about “a change of government, a change of regime, a change of era”.

“Let it be known to everyone that there is hope once again. Let it be known that we want our country back,” former prime minister Gordon Bajnai said upon announcing his reluctant return to politics.

“The reason I return to this stage is because I have realised . . . that 2014 will be more than just the date of the next election: 2014 will be a ‘crossroads’ year, a crossroads that will fundamentally determine our future for the next quarter of a century.”

Bajnai, who led a technocratic caretaker government in 2009-10, wants to unify those who value “patriotism and progress, solidarity and Europe” and share his belief that Orban has “systematically broken the spine of Hungarian democracy”.

Polls show Fidesz has lost much support since taking power, that Together 2014 is already the most popular opposition group, and that more than one-third of voters do not favour any party.

Having spent most of the last 20 years in opposition, however, Fidesz will fight ferociously to retain power. Orban depicts Bajnai – whose competent premiership won widespread praise – as a man indelibly tainted by his time as economy minister under Socialist ex-premier Ferenc Gyurcsany, whose many failings sent voters flocking to Fidesz.

“During the four years of the Gyurcsany-Bajnai government, the country was plunged into a deep trough,” Orban told The Irish Times.

“Hungarians are unsuspecting by nature, but they don’t like being taken for fools. The Bajnai-Gyurcsany alliance has ruined the country once already; the Hungarians won’t allow them to do it again.”

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