From rioting to a picnic, Hungary's protests fade
BUDAPEST, Sept 28 (Reuters) - They invoked the spirit of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, declared themselves the White Revolution and promised 'people power' to sweep away the government; but Hungary's protest movement has ended up as little more than a nationalist picnic party.
Local polls on Sunday will show how much damage Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany has suffered as a result of his admission that he lied throughout the May general election.
The 45-year-old millionaire and ex-president of the Communist Youth League faces bitter opposition to an austerity package. He has also been criticised over property deals he struck in the early years of post-communist privatisation.
All these thorny issues were taken up by the protesters. But it will be ordinary voters and not the newly formed 'national committees' of protestors who will determine his political fate.
At its peak the movement had around 40,000 on the streets and made headlines across the world when some demonstrators attacked the state television building and clashed with police.
But with the major opposition parties giving no real backing, the protests lost momentum and numbers have dwindled to a few thousand each evening.
"The people organising the protests are very well meaning amateurs," says Sebestyen Gorka of the Institute for Transitional Democracy and International Security who has been involved in the demonstrations. [..]
Hungarian election rules forbid political campaigning on the day before and during voting and so the protesters camped in front of parliament have been forced to ask for their presence to be declared a 'cultural event' rather than a demonstration.
The request may be an attempt to find a legal loophole; but a cultural event is, actually, a pretty fair description of what the protest has become.
The protesters' only political tactic has been to petition parliament to call a 'constituent assembly', to no avail, while those gathering each day eat goulash soup, listen to nationalist folk-singers and browse far-right book stands. [..]
Stallholders hawk maps of 'Greater Hungary', featuring borders from before the 1920 Trianon Treaty which dismembered the country handing territories to Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine, while security is provided by a self-styled 'national guard' in military fatigues. [..]
There are no shortage of references, from speakers and on banners, to [the] rebellion [of 1956], but it is nostalgia rather than revolution that is in the air. [..]
Gorka believes though that the 50th anniversary of the revolution next month could inject fresh life into the protests.
"I am optimistic for two reasons -- the local elections offer a chance for a protest vote and then the anniversary of the revolution, on October 23, will bring a lot of emotion on to the street," he said.
Some of those involved in the 1956 revolution have given their backing to the current protests and on Thursday, Jeno Fonay, who was initially sentenced to death for his role in the uprising, called for protestors facing charges from last week's trouble to be released.
"Let the people who have been arrested go home," Fonay said.
Hungarian opposition makes substantial gains in nationwide municipal elections
The Associated Press
October 1, 2006
Hungary's center-right opposition parties made substantial gains in nationwide elections Sunday that followed two weeks of protests over the prime minister's admission that he lied about the economy.
Hungary govt set to hold Budapest, polls show
The Hungarian government looked to have held on to the city of Budapest in local elections on Sunday, in what would be a big boost for embattled Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany.
Initial indications, based on opinion polls taken on Friday and Saturday during a blackout period on the publication of polls, showed Free Democrat mayor Gabor Demszky had held the capital.
The Free Democrats are the smaller coalition party in Gyurcsany's Socialist-led government. [..]
Hungary president calls for PM's removal
Laszlo Solyom, Hungary's president, called on the country's parliament to remove Ferenc Gyurcsany, the prime minister, from office.
Mr Solyom, in a televised address immediately after polls closed in nationwide local elections, said Hungary was in the midst of a "moral crisis" following the revelation two weeks ago that Mr Gyurcsany had admitted lying to win his party's re-election in April. [..]
The president's speech is not expected to bring Mr Gyurcsany's fall but will re-energise his opposition just as the prime minister looked poised to put recent unrest behind him and to continue with his plans for public sector reforms.
The president condemned recent street violence in Budapest but praised those who have demonstrated peacefully, calling for Mr Gyurcsany's removal.
"The peaceful protests across the country showed the healthy moral sense of the people to me. However, the catharsis and purge have not taken place," he said. [..]
Mr Solyom said only parliament had the constitutional power to solve the crisis. He said: "The parliament decides on the person of the prime minister. The parliament can restore the required social confidence."
Socialist party members reacted to the speech by angrily attacking Mr Solyom for interfering in party politics and declaring their continued support for Mr Gyurcsany.
The news electrified an anti-government demonstration in front of the downtown parliament building that was estimated at 10,000 people and growing rapidly. [..]
The pressure on Mr Gyurcsany had eased last week, partly because of revulsion over street violence that some blamed on opposition politicians who called their supporters to the street. However, as the furure began to fade, Viktor Orban, leader of opposition party Fidesz, raised the stakes of the approaching local elections by casting the vote as a referendum on the prime minister and his austerity package.
It was not yet clear early on Sunday evening whether that had paid off. Fidesz appeared likely to take several provincial cities previously held by the Mr Gyurcsany's Socialists.
However, Fidesz also appeared to have failed to make a breakthrough in the contest for Budapest's mayor, the highest profile race. Exit polls indicated Gabor Demszky [..] would win his fifth straight election.
Populists seize the moment as discontent grips central Europe
Voters in former Soviet-bloc countries take to streets to protest at failings of their young democracies
Ian Traynor in Budapest
Monday October 16, 2006
It is more than 40 years since Gyula Grosics last took to the park. But the legendary "Black Panther" goalkeeper, who was part of the remarkable Hungarian "golden team" of the 1950s that defeated England 6-3 at Wembley and 7-1 in Budapest, is taking on a new opponent, this time in front of the Hungarian parliament.
The sprightly octogenarian, like many of his compatriots, has had enough of what passes for democracy in Hungary. "One thing's for sure," he said, "this is not a democracy,it's a catastrophe. They just lie and cheat and lie. It's time to get rid of this government."
It is the season of discontent across central Europe, with governments teetering, populists on the rise and frustrations with the failings of immature democracies boiling over.
For the past month, thousands of Hungarians have been demonstrating on the square in front of parliament in an attempt to bring down the centre-left government of Ferenc Gyurcsany, a self-confessed liar who admitted he cheated his way to a second term in April.
Up the Danube next door in Slovakia an improbable alliance of leftwing populists and extreme rightwing nationalists holds sway, following years of radical reform by a liberal administration that took the country into Nato and the European Union.
In Prague, politics is so precariously polarised between left and right that neither side is able to form a stable government. The Czech Republic has effectively been without a government since June, when a dead-heat election left conservative Eurosceptics victorious but unable to muster a parliamentary majority.
And in Poland this week, parliament is mulling the need for early elections following the collapse of a prickly coalition of conservatives, extreme-right reactionaries and leftwing demagogues.
"Things have become much more complicated than we expected," sighed Pavol Demes, a former Slovak foreign minister. "People are tired and frustrated and politicians are using and abusing these feelings."
Since the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians joined the EU in 2004, voters have kicked out the politicians who masterminded EU entry and elected more nationalist Eurosceptic leaders, with the exception of Hungary, where the conservative opposition is campaigning to bring down the Gyurcsany coalition of social democrats and liberals.
"It's like the lid on the pressure cooker has been blown off," said Jiri Pehe, a leading Czech analyst and former presidential adviser. "The amount of change in these countries in recent years has been unparalleled. Now we're seeing the backlash. The historical objective has been achieved and the politicians who led it are being swept away."
In front of the parliament in Budapest, the conservative opposition Fidesz, Hungary's biggest political party, has erected a stage from which its leaders preach to and mobilise the protesters every night. It hopes to achieve critical mass and force the prime minister to resign over the next couple of weeks as Hungary marks the 50th anniversary of the national uprising of 1956 crushed by Soviet tanks.
Fidesz is using extra-parliamentary pressure to try to browbeat a government that it cannot defeat inside the parliamentary chamber. Despite being discredited, Mr Gyurcsany comfortably won a vote of confidence last week.
In Poland, too, politics is moving out of parliament and on to the street, with government and opposition staging large rallies this month to mobilise supporters only a year after an election. In Warsaw the rightwing administration of the twins Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski says it is engaged in a "moral revolution" to cleanse Poland of sleaze.
In Hungary, the tensions, divisions and the prime minister's self-confessed lies about the parlous state of the economy to keep office have triggered what President Laszlo Solyom calls "a moral crisis".
"This government has lost the moral ground. They cheated. They treat us as stupid. They think we're fools," said Miklos Patthy, a pharmaceutical researcher taking part in the demonstrations, which are part protest and part picnic but have also degenerated into the worst political violence for 50 years.
Mr Patthy, a rightwing voter, is bitter that the post-communist left has managed to dominate Hungarian politics for much of the democratic period since the anti-communist revolutions of 1989. The same grievance is powering the Kaczynski brothers' "moral" crusade.
For the protesters and the right wing, whether in government or opposition, there is much to be bitter about. Hungary, for example, has had three prime ministers from the Socialist party, the successor to the Communist party that was the monopoly ruler under the Soviet system before 1989.
One of the prime ministers was a Communist militiaman ranged against the freedom fighters of the failed Hungarian revolution of 1956. A second had to resign amid allegations of being a KGB collaborator. The third, the incumbent Mr Gyurcsany, is an immensely wealthy former Young Communist leader.
"It's not right that we're still governed by this lot 16 years after the regime change. They're not legitimate," said Mr Patthy. "It's no accident that they're big leftists as well as the richest politicians in Hungary."
The new right wing is increasingly calling into question the historic compromise that underpins the democratic gains of the past 16 years and the legitimacy of former Communists playing a prominent role in the young democracies. But analysts say its diagnosis is simplistic, dishonest and dangerous.
"What we're seeing in Hungary and Poland is a very self-righteous and belated attempt by the right to deal with history by falling back on old nationalist cliches about heroes and villains, patriots and traitors. It's not so black and white," said Mr Pehe.
Ferenc Hammer, a Hungarian political scientist, points out that the eastern European revolutions of 1989 were unusually peaceful precisely because they all entailed negotiated sets of compromises between the old and new regimes. Without that fundamental bargain, there could have been much bloodshed. But the compromises are now being attacked by nationalists, conservatives and populists either in power or trying to seize power.
"Politics here is seen as a zero-sum game, always us versus them," said Mr Hammer.
While the protesters outside the Hungarian parliament rail against what they describe as "a dictatorship of liars", Imre Mecs, a Hungarian government MP and veteran liberal, says that the political manipulation of the demonstrations shows that Viktor Orban, the opposition leader, is trying to topple a democratically elected government.
"It's a straight battle for power, the losers fighting the winners. It turns out that Orban is not a democrat," he said. "What this country needs is a national catharsis. But it's very controversial and very difficult."
Hungarian revolution - 50 years on
Political turmoil and street protests: rebellion's bitter legacy lives on
In the first of a three-part series to mark the uprising in Budapest that shook the world half a century ago, the Guardian looks at how the past still divides people
Ian Traynor in Budapest
Thursday October 19, 2006
Imre Mecs will don his habitual bow tie on Sunday evening and make his way to the opera house in Budapest, one of the finest buildings in the Hungarian capital, to recall the event that marked him for life and shook the world 50 years ago - the Hungarian revolution.
Mr Mecs sat on death row in a dungeon in Budapest for six years as a result of his revolutionary youth. He fully expected to be strung up on wooden gallows by communist henchmen. For a long time, Mr Mecs, now a 73-year-old liberal MP, could not imagine winning free elections in a democracy or attending solemn ceremonies at the opera.
"The statistics were very bad," Mr Mecs recalled. "Almost 400 of us were sentenced to death and 233 were executed. At one point 19 out of 20 of the condemned were being executed, so I didn't think I would make it."
The night at the opera should be a happy occasion, a celebration of Hungary's passage from a depressed Soviet satellite state to a vibrant free democracy. Instead, the 50th anniversary events starting on Sunday will be bitter and divisive. "This anniversary should be a chance to make a fresh start at a moment where everyone can agree. Unfortunately no one believes this can happen," said Pal Germuska, a historian at the city's 1956 Institute. "The freedom fighters and the killers are still living in this society. Fifty years is not enough to sort out all these problems."
Dozens of foreign dignitaries are to travel to Budapest at the weekend to take part in the anniversary rituals. But with Hungarian politics polarised to the worst extent since communism was routed in 1989, the national holiday may turn into a bad-tempered fiasco.
President Laszlo Solyom is to host the opera house ceremony, but veterans of 1956 are threatening to walk out as soon as the prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, arrives, vowing not to "breathe the same air" as a politician whose governing socialist party is the successor of the communists who helped the Russians crush the 1956 uprising.
The prime minister, who has been the target of weeks of protests in Budapest after admitting lying to win a second term in April's elections, is also to make a speech in the presence of international leaders in parliament next Monday, the anniversary of the day the revolution erupted with a student demonstration on October 23 1956.
That could also turn sour. Rival political parties and organisations are to stage their own separate commemorations. The main opposition said yesterday that it would boycott the Gyurcsany speech. Things could also turn ugly today when police attempt to clear the square in front of parliament, where anti-government demonstrators have established a month-old camp.
"How many 1956s are there out there and which one is the right one?" asked the political scientist Ferenc Hammer.
It is a question that Hungary is still not able to answer. Joseph Rothschild, the US historian of eastern and central Europe, suggested this definition: "These events in Hungary were not a mere rebellion or uprising or insurrection or putsch or general strike, but a genuine and domestically victorious revolution, defeated only by overwhelming foreign force."
Three years after the death of Stalin and a few months after the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, denounced the tyrant in his famous secret speech to the Soviet communist party, the Hungarian revolution initially hinted at a loosening of Soviet dictatorship in the heart of Europe. In the summer before the Budapest uprising, there had been a workers' insurrection in Poland that extracted concessions from the Kremlin and encouraged Hungary's reformist communist hero, Imre Nagy, to go further.
Ten days into the revolution, the scale and the boldness of the Nagy project was made plain when he ordered the Red Army out of Hungary, reinstituted political pluralism in place of monopoly communist rule, announced Hungary was pulling out of the Warsaw Pact, Soviet communism's answer to Nato, and declared Hungary's military neutrality, as had happened in neighbouring Austria the year before when the Russians ended their postwar presence.
Nagy opened to question the Kremlin's absolute power in central and eastern Europe. He had been encouraged both by Soviet dithering and US support. But the Hungarians were betrayed by the Americans and hammered by the Russians. The Kremlin sent in the tanks to crush the revolution after 13 days on November 4. The Americans, who had been broadcasting tips on how to make petrol bombs and defy the Russians, promptly averted their eyes as the Russians bloodily suppressed the insurgency.
More than 2,500 Hungarians were killed, some 20,000 wounded, and another 200,000 fled, first to Austria then on to America, Canada, and Australia, in Europe's first big refugee crisis since the second world war.
For decades the conventional verdict has been that Washington was too preoccupied with the Suez crisis to intervene for the Hungarians. But combing the US and Soviet archives, an American-Hungarian historian, Charles Gati, has argued persuasively this year that the Eisenhower administration perpetrated a cruel trick on Hungary and had no intention of challenging Moscow.
"Washington offered only hope, no help," Mr Gati wrote recently. "The Eisenhower administration's policy turned out to be a hoax, hypocrisy mitigated only by self-delusion."
A month after Mr Mecs received his death sentence in May 1958, Imre Nagy was executed, his corpse dumped in an unmarked grave.
The 33 years of "goulash communism" that followed the doomed uprising were, said Mr Hammer, a period "of systematic forgetting. It was Orwellian." The revolution was renamed the "counter-revolution" by the ruling communists.
"Some think it's legitimate to connect 1956 to the events going on here now. That's absolutely false," said Mr Mecs. "There's no connection between 1956 and the current situation."
The eyes of the world will be trained on Hungary next week in admiration for the plucky freedom fighters and their glorious defeat. But they may be watching an ugly spectacle. "Hungary has never been united. Even in 1956 it was united only for a few moments," said Mr Germuska. "This is a big anniversary. And it's a big missed opportunity."
1956 National revolt against Soviet rule and Imre Nagy becomes prime minister. USSR crushes uprising and Janos Kadar takes over
1958 Communist government executes Nagy for high treason
1968 Kadar gradually introduces free market reforms. Farmers and industrial workers given increased rights
1988 Democratic reforms introduced
1989 Proclamation of the Republic of Hungary and end of communist rule
1990 Budapest stock exchange opens and Hungary leaves the Warsaw Pact
1990 Jozsef Antall elected prime minister in country's first free parliamentary elections
1991 Soviet troops leave and the Warsaw Pact dissolves
1999 Hungary joins Nato
2004 Joins the EU
April 2006 Election returns Ferenc Gyurcsany and socialists to power
September 2006 Violence erupts in Budapest as it emerges that government lied during elections
It is amazing to compare the attitudes of the rebels of 50 years ago to the expressed attitudes of the demonstrators today.