Dispatch

Hungary Finally Has an Opposition Worth a Damn

The country’s youngest party has united the left and right against Viktor Orban.

Vice-chairman of the Momentum party Anna Donath at a protest in downtown Budapest on Dec. 16, 2018. (Peter Kohalmi/AFP/Getty Images)
Vice-chairman of the Momentum party Anna Donath at a protest in downtown Budapest on Dec. 16, 2018. (Peter Kohalmi/AFP/Getty Images)

BUDAPEST, Hungary—Last April, in the third straight national election, the right-wing nationalist Fidesz party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban trounced several dozen rivals. Fidesz even managed to secure another supermajority in the parliament—its third in a row since 2010—which enables it to pass legislation at will, including, most recently, a controversial labor law and one to set up a new system of courts overseen directly by the justice minister. Only two opposition parties were able even to conduct countrywide campaigns.

It has been nearly a decade since Orban has had to fear political opposition. (One of his few lively rivals in recent years has probably been the Two-Tailed Dog Party, a joke called to life by street artists from the city of Szeged.) That may be about to change. Orban’s rule has inspired unrest across Hungary’s political spectrum, and capable political organizations are finally there to capitalize on the discontent.

In December, the broadest ever demonstrations against Orban’s rule were sparked by a labor bill that critics have dubbed the “slave law.” The legislation—just one of several measures pushed by Orban to address a shortage of labor in an economy with 3.7 percent unemployment—enables employers to request 60 percent more overtime every year, which works out to about 400 hours, up from the current 250. Moreover, employers—such as the foreign automakers profiting from Hungary’s low wages, including the German automakers Daimler, Volkswagen, and BMW—can postpone payment for the extra hours for three years. Orban’s spokesmen claim that the overtime hours are voluntary; labor unions shoot back that workers risk their jobs if they refuse.

The unique aspect of the ongoing protests—another strike and mass rally happened Thursday—is that they aren’t only drawing thousands of people in urban centers outside Budapest, such as Pecs, Szeged, and Szombathely, but also hundreds in much smaller towns. Moreover, rank-and-file workers and labor unions, which had been snuggly in Fidesz’s pocket, have joined with students and activists on the streets. “The unions are using language not heard in years,” said the Hungarian economist Laszlo Andor. Another novelty: Diaspora Hungarians are staging solidarity demonstrations in at least 30 foreign cities around the world.

The parliamentary opposition tried to physically block the overtime bill’s passage on Dec. 12 by obstructing the Fidesz speaker’s access to the podium and sounding sirens and blowing whistles during the voting session. The bill became law nevertheless. In response, two opposition parliament members demanded that the state media allow them to make their case on air, which is their right by law. But they were physically thrown off the premises, which social media and the last remnants of Hungary’s independent press documented, thus triggering the nationwide demonstrations.

“Whatever we try to do within the normal parliamentary framework — like presenting amendments or draft laws or debating in the committees — falls on deaf ears and everything is forcefully brushed aside,” Timea Szabo, a lawmaker with the Dialogue party, told The Associated Press. “We have reached the point where we simply have to resort to other means, within the frame of non-violence.”

The protests have catapulted a onetime grassroots initiative called Momentum, now an official party, into the forefront of Hungarian politics. Images of one of the party’s deputy leaders, 31-year-old Anna Donath, dramatically holding up a smoking purple flare in the air above one of the sub-zero, nighttime demonstrations in downtown Budapest, have come to symbolize the protests.

Donath is typical of Momentum’s core supporters: She studied sociology and migration at universities in Budapest and Amsterdam and then served as an intern at the European Union before returning to Hungary. The party is led by the generation that came of voting age just as Orban and Fidesz returned to power in 2010. Many of them, including Momentum’s chairman, Andras Fekete-Gyor, even cast their ballot for Fidesz then. But their disillusionment grew with the rampant corruption (on Transparency International’s index only Bulgaria ranks worse than Hungary among EU nations), the crony economy, Fidesz’s authoritarian overhaul of the state, and the ever more outrageous propaganda.

Momentum got its start in 2014, when a group of students, many recently returned from abroad, organized a blitz campaign to undercut the government’s bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. In just a month’s time, the group collected more than 260,000 signatures to hold a referendum on the issue, which spooked Fidesz enough to withdraw Hungary’s bid.

It was a resounding, in-your-face defeat for Orban by young Hungarians with confidence, international experience, and political savvy. “Experts advised against it,” said Fekete-Gyor in 2017. “The topic doesn’t interest anyone, it’s too cold outside, and we don’t have enough activists.” But the experts were wrong. “Since then we know: Everything is possible,” he told German media before the April 2018 election.

Come election day, however, it wasn’t possible for Momentum to make the jump into parliament, earning just 3 percent of the vote. (The threshold is 5 percent.) But in the post-election protests, Momentum has captured the imagination of the young masses. They’ve done so by claiming to be post-ideological and abandoning the country’s disgraced terminology of “left” and “liberal,” the legacy of previous governments’ mismanagement and corruption. Fekete-Gyor gladly encourages comparisons with French President Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche, which similarly claims to be “neither left nor right.”

“Momentum has a chance because it’s the first party to have a coherent narrative countering Fidesz,” said the journalist Stephan Ozsvath, the author of a book on Fidesz-era Hungary, who notes how much the December protests have boosted the party. “They say that as young Hungarians, ‘We don’t want to leave Hungary. We want a future here.’ They’re about defending the country from the fraud and cronyism.” But beyond opposing Orban’s leadership, much about Momentum’s agenda is still vague. The party has said it is for same-sex marriage and the EU but also accepts as necessary the razor wire fence on Hungary’s southern border, a signature Orban policy.

Momentum’s greatest achievement thus far has been to draw up a pithy five-point anti-Orban petition—it calls for the government to revoke the slave law, maintain the courts’ independence, improve work conditions for the police and public servants, and free the media and to persuade the entire Hungarian opposition to put aside their differences to rally behind it. “We will not back down, until the Orbán regime hears our demands!” the petition concludes. “We will not back down while Orbán oppresses the Hungarian people and steals our money!” Momentum’s efforts have united the opposition more than ever before, with far-right Jobbik nationalists marching alongside members of the Green Left party at regular demonstrations.

Momentum’s next test is the European Parliament elections in May and then, even more important, the Hungarian local elections in the fall. The opposition parties hope that by putting only one opposition candidate on each municipality’s ballot, they’ll have a fighting chance to topple Fidesz in a dozen or so municipalities. After all, they note, the opposition parties, all of them together, notched up 51 percent of the popular vote in 2018 in contrast to Fidesz’s 49 percent. (It was the Fidesz-designed first-past-the-post electoral code that enabled it to obtain 67 percent of parliament seats.)

Yet the odds of ousting Fidesz entirely in the short term, rather than just putting a dent in its armor, are still very long. Hungary at present is essentially a single-party state in which Fidesz controls all the levers of power. Momentum makes forays into the countryside to court rural Hungarians, Fidesz’s rock-solid heartland, but most voters there receive only state media and local pro-Fidesz newspapers. It’s doubtful that the youth with their advanced degrees and perfect English can win the hearts and souls of Hungary’s rural voters. The local Fidesz mayors still control the workfare and public service jobs, as well as the monies paid out to loyal contractors. The opposition parties have nothing to compete with the millions of euros that Orban’s cronies have amassed over the years. And then there are the clandestine security services that work on the party’s behalf.

Dislodging Orban and Fidesz from power will be a long, incremental process. The question now is whether Hungary’s highly educated, ambitious young people will have the endurance to see it through.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).
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