News feature originally appeared in the EUobserver on 05.04.11, dateline Hejoszalonta, Hungary.
A gypsy girl of maybe eight, nine years old holds onto her little brother tightly. Looking out over the chicken-wire fence at the end of their mud garden in the Roma ghetto in the village of Hejoszalonta, they stare at the around 600 members of Hungary’s fascist party, Jobbik, and its paramilitary wing, the Magyar Garda, dressed in black or camouflage or just leather jackets, marching right past where they live with torches aloft and nationalist heavy metal music blasting.
An hour and a half north of Budapest, the village, home to just 850 people, 350 of them Roma, was the site last week of the murder of a 50-year-old woman. Jobbik immediately exploited the crime, declaring ahead of any arrest of suspects that the woman’s two Roma tenants were guilty and announced they were to come to the village and protect it from “gypsy terror”.
As the jack-booted marchers file past, Roma-rights activist Agnes Daroczi leads villagers in a chant from behind police lines that for all its moderation and reasonableness is shouted with no less ferocity: “Peace! Rule of Law! No fascists!’
Please visit a slide show of the rally and march.
The protest, which took place on Saturday (2 April), is the second such demonstration by the far-right vigilantes in a month. At the beginning of March, Jobbik and its allied blackshirts went to the village of Gyongyospata, also claiming to protect it from the crimes allegedly perpetrated by their Roma inhabitants. There the numbers were larger. According to human rights groups, quoting the local community, some 2-3000 marched repeatedly up and down the streets of the town with torches and whips.
According human rights activist Judit Kende, the Roma of Gyongyospata strained to keep their teenaged boys away from the marches, scared that the mix of their fury, humiliation and hormones would push them to lash out.
“Jobbik were deliberately provoking them. Parents held the teenagers back because the fascists wanted an excuse to attack. It would have been a bloodbath,” Kende told EUobserver at the far end of the Roma ghetto in Hejoszalonta, where the community had been herded by police to allow the march to take place and a counter-protest had been mounted of perhaps a hundred locals and a clutch of human rights campaigners from Amnesty International, domestic civil liberties group Tasz and members from a new activist political party, the European-Green-Party-linked LMP.
Courts outlawed the Magyar Garda, or Hungarian Guard, in 2009, but the group simply reorganised itself into new formations with many of the same members simply by changing the name to the Hungarian National Guard or similar wording.
Meanwhile, the governing Fidesz-Christian Democrat coalition has remained “strangely silent”, Kenda continued.
“By letting these armed groups roam freely, the state has abandoned its monopoly on the use of force,” she added, a line that is frequently repeated by human rights groups.
The police have stopped the human rights campaigners and the LMP from forming a human chain protecting the Roma houses, modest shacks with irregular, warping roofs and unfinished windows, ostensibly because the road through the village is “too narrow” to hold two demonstrations.
Nonetheless, the activists are relieved that at least the police are here this time.
Towards the end of the Jobbik march, the Roma community launched into a ragged but proud rendition of the Himnusz, the country’s national anthem, a choral declaration that they are Hungarian too.
Back in Budapest, Timea Szabo, one of the founders of the LMP and responsible for the party’s Roma policy, explained why Jobbik has launched a new “marching season”.
“Although they claim to be an opposition to Fidesz, they vote with the government on most things and they’ve slipped in the polls,” she said. In last year’s general election, Jobbik shocked much of Europe by winning 17.5 percent of the votes, but recent polls put the party down at 13 percent.
“So that’s good in one sense, but it’s also meant that Jobbik has gone back to its old strategy of intimidating Roma and marching in villages, hoping that the tactics that got them elected will work again.”
But for Szabo, along with the rest of her new party, as terrifying as the return of torchlit blackshirt marches through the countryside may be, much of the recent focus of the LMP is on the battle against a radically conservative new constitution that the government is rushing through parliament that they and many of the generation of anti-Stalinist activists from the 1980s say threatens Hungarian democracy.
European Green party conference-goers are not used to police protection, airport metal detectors, heavy security, threats of counter-demonstrations and being bombarded with anti-semitic emails, but these are not normal times and their meeting from 31 March to 3 April in the Hungarian capital was no ordinary eco-get-together.
“Usually, we rock up to a place, put out our sunflowers, and then nobody really pays us much attention,” said one delegate to the meeting. “It’s not normally like this.”
The European Greens decided that they would hold this year’s party council in Budapest, as much because the country currently holds the EU’s six-month rotating presidency as to needle the right-wing government of Prime Minister Victor Orban’s Fidesz. Green MEPs in Strasbourg have been amongst the most outspoken in the chamber over the country’s controversial media law, which massively expands state oversight of print, internet and broadcast outlets by a powerful media council of government appointees and introduces huge fines for ‘unbalanced reporting’, and now its proposed new constitution.
Earlier this year, a video of co-leader of the Greens in the European Parliament, Daniel Cohn-Bendit sparring with Orban in Strasbourg went viral in Hungary, a land where Jew-hatred still has much of the strength and flavour it did in the 1930s. An avalanche of anti-Semitic comments quickly appeared beneath the clip on YouTube and the party’s email inboxes were filled with similar messages. Cohn-Bendit, an atheist, is of Jewish extraction.
The party was warned that there were likely to be protests outside the hotel where delegates were staying, possibly by Jobbik or the Magyar Garda. In the end to their relief, no demonstrations materialised.
Fidesz won a two-thirds majority in the country’s 2010 general election, enough to make changes to the country’s constitution, and the party is wasting no time exploiting this power. A new constitution was submitted to parliament on 21 March after the house speaker declared the existing text void.
The new text, termed the ‘Easter Constitution’ by its authors to symbolise the ‘rebirth’ of the Hungarian nation, bans gay marriage and abortion and gives an extra vote to those with children.
“Hungary protects the institution of marriage between man and woman, a matrimonial relationship voluntarily established, as well as the family as the basis for the survival of the nation,” reads Article M of the ‘Basic Stipulations’ of the new document.
Under Article 21 of the section entitled ‘Freedom and Responsibility’, the document gives mothers an extra go at the ballot box: “It cannot be considered an infringement of equal voting rights if a super majority law provides an additional vote for mothers in families with minor children, or as a provided by law, another person may be entitled to an additional vote.”
Critics also worry about a the possible irredentism contained in a clause declaring Hungary’s “responsibility for the destiny of Hungarians living outside her borders”. They say that this could be read as offering voting rights to ethnic Hungarians residing in neighbouring states. A quarter of all ethnic Hungarians live beyond the country’s borders, mainly in Slovakia, Romania and Serbia.
Orban himself told TV2 on Tuesday there was “no question” whether they would be given the right to vote, but how they should be able to exercise this right.
Notably, as the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union has pointed out in a list of discrepancies between the original text and its English translation submitted to the European Parliament, all adult Hungarian citizens “residing in the territory of Hungary” shall have the right to vote, but the original version makes no reference to where the citizen lives.
Liberals in the European Parliament have also written to the EU Council asking them to consider whether the document is discriminatory.
And whatever the international reaction, the government is aware its standing has diminished on the world stage and is taking preventive action, hiring Project Associates, a UK public relations outfit, to perform some ‘reputation management’ for the country.
But the situation in the country has certainly frightened some of those Hungarians who fought to overthrow the Communist regime. Miklos Haraszti, until last year the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s press freedom watchdog and a co-founder in 1976 of the Hungarian Democratic Opposition Movement, told the conference: “For the first time, it is possible that Hungary will lose its freedom by throwing democracy away with simple democratic tools.”
Referring to the notorious domestic fact that the document was written in part on an iPad, he added: “It will be the first nineteenth-century constitution written on 21st century technology.”
Istvan Elek, a journalist from the same generation, said: “Hungarian democracy is very ill. It was already ill in 2010, but has now advanced to a more serious stage of the illness.”
“We have a long struggle ahead of us,” he said, adding that he is pessimistic that the fight can be won, but he saluted the young members of the LMP, although he is not a member.
“If LMP cannot create a civil society culture alongside the political party,” he continued, “It’s going to be an impossible situation.”
Cohn-Bendit too warned that something is rotten in the state of Hungary: “If we allow a tremendous shift away from democracy in one member state, then this will happen in another member state and another.”
Hungary’s young rebels
But the European Greens’ main reason for holding their conference in Budapest was as a show of support for their local party, Lehet Mas a Politika (LMP), which was launched just over two years ago by a gang of NGO activists and who are, apart from the Social Democratic party – largely discredited for their cavalcade of corruption scandals – the only real opposition to country’s gallop to the hard right.
The LMP, whose name has generally been translated from Hungarian as ‘Politics Can Be Different’, burst onto the Hungarian political scene two years ago in an unusual way. Instead of breaking from existing parties, the LMP was founded by a group of young civil society activists from the likes of Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Oxfam and civil liberties and anti-corruption NGOs, most of whom had never had any political experience or even joined a political party.
Hungary for years had an official Green Party, but, as with much of eastern Europe outside the Czech Republic, environmentalism never really took root. The LMP meanwhile have affiliated to the European Greens as they feel ideologically closest to them, but, as one EU Green official said approvingly: “They’re not really a traditional Green party. They’re more a pro-democracy party with green credentials.”
On a shoestring budget of around €40,000, they went from no seats to 16 on a 7.5 percent vote in the same general election that wiped out the social democrats and delivered a massive victory to Fidesz and Jobbik. They grabbed another 54 seats on local city councils last autumn.
Intriguingly, in the national election, LMP and Jobbik won 40 percent of votes cast by those under 24 years old.
Jobbik is one of their biggest competitors for the youth vote, but, according to MP David Dorosz, 26 years old and a member of the party’s national committee, this is a rural youth vote. “These people are unemployed even though they studied a lot. They have no money; they live with their parents.”
“They’re angry and understandably. They should really be with us and we are trying to get these voters over to our side.”
The LMP is aware that they are fishing in some of the same waters and believes that they can win over the youth that have been tempted by the far right if they can get through their message of social justice and jobs.
For Jobbik, this makes the upstart party a main target. At the party’s rally in Hejoszalonta ahead of the march, the main speaker repeatedly attacked the LMP.
“Sometimes there are campaigns against us,” says Dorosz. “These are very typical accusations coming from the side of Jobbik. They call us ‘cosmopolitan, Jewish-led.’ The whole style carries from the 1930s.”
These attacks trouble the young men and women of the party not because they are being targetted more than they ever were when they were NGO campaigners, but because some of the slander sticks.
“It’s hard. It’s sad that we still have such public opinions, such gossip years after the change. They try to label us as something we’re not, but this puts us in a bad situation in front of the voters.”
Hungarian Ambience, a blog close to Jobbik, last September accused them of being a front for the Hungarian Liberal Party, the SZDSZ, which was wiped out in the general election. ‘Liberal’ is perhaps the dirtiest word in contemporary Hungarian discourse.
“After the SZDSZ, the most notorious anti-Hungarian party imploded in the spring election, liberal hate organizations panicked,” the blogger wrote on 3 September. “They quickly came up with a new idea of setting up a seemingly sanitized party pursuing a fraudulent environmental agenda. This is to mislead and dupe people into believing that the new party, LMP, is unlike the extremist SZDSZ that caused more harm to the country than sixty years of Soviet occupation.”
Dorosz laughs off the idea that they are a front for anyone and stresses that the party “is not liberal, not socialist, not conservative. We’re building a new politics for the 21st Century.”
Leader Andras Schiffer, an elder in the party at the age of 39, goes further: “When we set up LMP, it was very important to us that the political dialogue of the past is no longer valid for the present time.
“We have to show that the mainstream politics, populism, we can move away from this.”
“When elites do not face up to challenges of global capitalism, moves that have brought poverty. they try to solve this through a centralised democracy. Populist policies become tempting.”
Virag Kaufer, 35, another MP and head of the party’s social policy unit, explains why a group of NGO campaigners decided to ‘join the dark side’ and get involved in partisan politics.
“My university mates founded the party. They’d studied eco-politics, campaigned against privatisation of social services, healthcare and against Hungary joining Nato. It was us who founded the – what do you call it in English? Not the anti-globalisation movement. I hate that word – the Global Justice Movement.”
“We’re actually not very happy with the English translation of our name because it doesn’t show its roots. During the height of the global justice movement, the slogan was ‘Another world is possible’, which in Hungarian is ‘Lehet mas a vilag’. So the name we chose, ‘Lehet mas a politika’, should really be translated as ‘Another politics is possible’.”
Many of these young people, Hungary’s ‘Seattle Generation’, like their counterparts in much of the rest of the world, had found jobs in NGO-land after their days of student protests were over and decided to professionalise how they were going to change the world.
“However, as NGO workers, we were pretty much outsiders, screaming from the sidelines, but we felt that this was not enough, and we had lost faith in all of the political parties.”
At the time, she had been working for Oxfam in the UK, but soon quit her job to come back to Hungary and run for parliament.
“It was a big change in my life when I was elected. It was a complete turn-around in my life in the space of about 10 months. It was literally a culture shock. Suddenly we are surrounded by grey-suited bureaucrats who do not want to change the world.”
And some of their old friends in the NGOs now keep their distance: “Quite a lot of people in civil society turned their backs on us. Not all, but a lot.”
Still a constitutional democracy
Much of the LMP’s main campaigning has been around the media law, Roma integration, and the fight against corruption. The party is also working hard to introduce green politics to a country resistant to the concept, although this has changed considerably after the devastation wrought last year by the accidental release of a million cubic metres of ‘red sludge’, caustic waste from an alumina plant in the town of Ajka, forcing 80-90 people to be hospitalised for chemical burns.
There have been teething troubles though. Finances after the election campaigns remain tight and some newer members from some areas of the country wonder whether there should be as much emphasis on gay rights and other issues sensitive in socially conservative regions away from the capital.
But the focus for now is defeating the new constitution and, true to its roots, the party is not just interested in parliamentary activity, but still very much involved in the street politics that defines much of the country’s political life.
“People are getting angry. In two weeks, we are organising what we hope will be the biggest demonstration yet against the constitution. We think we will get 10,000 people out, but there will be demonstrations all week long, organised by trade unions, some NGOs.”
The main danger with the constitution, according to Dorosz, is not its conservatism per se, but that Fidesz’s pet policies are being implemented as national principles, cemented into the document. Instead of laws that can later be overturned should the national mood shift when other parties are elected, these will now be constitutional imperatives that can only be changed if some future government also, like Fidesz, wins a two-thirds majority.
“So for example, rules about taxes and public spending will be written into the constitution, meaning that a government would need a two thirds’ majority in order to change this, which is incredibly unlikely,” says Dorosz. “And what is governing if not making your own decisions about taxes and public spending?”
“The two-thirds majority is Orban’s trump card. If you have it, you win everything,” he continues.
“Of course, the situation is not quite as bad as Belarus, yet. Hungary is not an authoritarian system and Orban is not a dictator,” he said, “but their aim is to stay here for 20-30 years.”
They hope that the European Union takes some sort of action to protect Hungarian democracy, but they are not holding their breath.
“The EU should address these problems, but the EU has a very weak history in this … Our greatest fear is that Europe will lose interest in what is going on here, with everyone paying attention to Libya, Japan and so on.”
“Pressure from the EU is so important. We cannot have the EU do our job for us, but we do need their support.”
The European Commission for its part says its hands are tied as it has no legal power over the crafting of national constitutions.
“We really think it’s up to Hungarians themselves. It’s their constitution,” EU justice spokesman Matthew Newman told EUobserver. “If there are any complaints about fundamental rights violations, they should be addressed by the national authorities.”
One EU source said that in principle, the commission and parliament do have the ‘nuclear option’ at their disposal – the application of Article 7 of the EU Treaty, which requires the suspension of voting rights of a member state found to be in “serious breach” of EU “founding values” such as democracy, human rights and the protection of minorities.
“But this is meant for the suspension of habeas corpus or the institution of martial law or one-party rule. Hungary is nowhere near any of this. The country is still a constitutional democracy.”
The European Union has no sanction it can deploy in cases of governments in that murky grey area somewhere between functioning liberal democracies and outright dictatorships.
In the end, it may be up to the young rebels of the LMP, their activist friends and the NGOs to take action on their own – the kind of people who stood up for the Roma on Saturday night.