Several dozen protesters scaled the gates on Thursday morning and occupied the courtyard outside the headquarters of Fidesz, the right-wing party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Under the banner “The Constitution is not a toy”, they demanded that the government abandon plans for a fourth major amendment to the Basic Law that look effect in 2011, a proposal which the previous day had drawn criticism from the Council of Europe.
One participant told reporters that the protesters, most appearing to be students, were determined to occupy the area until the government withdraws “this shameful amendment” proposal. Dozens of police were rapidly deployed. A young man was arrested after trying to enter the building despite a warning that it would be an offence, state news agency MTI reported.
The protest coalesced around the Facebook group “Az alkotmány nem játék” (The Constitution is not a toy), which describes itself as “a joint campaign by civil organisations and citizens”. The group was already exhorting people to join a demonstration this Saturday on Alkotmány utca (fittingly, the broad Constitution Street that leads to Parliament). The events of Thursday appear to have been a more zeitgeisty “occupy”-style happening.
A statement posted at 11am announced that some hundred protesters intended to continue their sit-in until the government rescinds its latest amendment proposal. Towards noon two men emerged from the building and asked protesters to leave the courtyard of the building in Lendvay utca, District VI, because it is private property. The police relayed this request several times, were met with stony silence, then withdrew. As the news spread more sympathisers showed up on Thursday afternoon, along with counter-demostrators.
The concerns expressed in the protesters’ statement were similar to those outlined by civic organisations. They accuse the government of dismantling the constitutional order and amending the basic law to criminalise homelessness, exclude gay couples and the childless from the legal definition of family, limit freedom of speech, judicial independence and electoral freedom, and set aside 22 years of precedent in Constitutional Court rulings. The statement described the Basic Law as illegitimate, it being the work only of the ruling Fidesz-Christian Democrat alliance.
The safeguard of liberties
The last point raised in the statement from the protesters who staged a sit-in in the courtyard of Fidesz party headquarters broadened the issue beyond merely the latest round of amendments: “a ‘Basic Law’ created unilaterally is not a legitimate Constitution for Hungary”. This is an intrinsic weakness of the new Constitution, which has never faced a national referendum. Fidesz insists that all parties were given the opportunity to participate in its drafting. They all refused, however, complaining that the government appointees in the majority on the drafting committee simply ignored any proposals from the opposition.
The government has repeatedly argued that its two-thirds parliamentary majority mandates it to act in the name of the people. The Fidesz-Christian Democrat alliance got well over double the number of votes of the runner-up Socialist Party, but the fact is that only half of those who voted, and only one-in-three of those eligible to do so, backed Orbán’s party.
The claim to universality of the new Basic Law is further strained by the government’s apparent readiness to amend it at will in the wake of inconvenient Constitutional Court rulings. The 15-page bagatelle proposal now before Parliament and facing the vote this Monday would be the fourth such amendment in under two years since the Constitution took effect.
Let them eat cakes!
The ruling conservative party Fidesz reacted to the protest outside its headquarters by implying that it was the work of former Socialist-backed prime minister Gordon Bajnai, who as head of the new Together 2014 (E14) movement recently set himself up as a challenger to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the election due next year.
“Aggression is not an acceptable way to settle arguments; a person has no right to kick in his neighbour’s door over a disagreement,” Fidesz said. “The vast majority of Hungarian people agree with Fidesz that they want no part of the intensive and undemocratic hate campaign waged by the left wing. If Bajnai lets us know in advance, we would let his people into the Fidesz headquarters without any further ado.”
E14 swiftly issued a denial: “The occupation of the headquarters has nothing to do with Gordon Bajnai or the organisation he represents, as Fidesz is well aware. We issue this statement so voters can know this, too.”
Fidesz spokeswoman Gabriella Selmeczi and the party’s communications director, Máté Kocsis, turned up shortly after noon, with a smiling Selmeczi offering a plate of biscuits to the demonstrators. The offer was refused.