Exactly three years after the mass demonstration against the new constitution, protesters gathered again in front of the Opera House last Friday. As the organisers from the MostMi! (NowUs!) Facebook group and most of the speakers declared, the aim this time was to start building a new, politically active community that could, eventually, “create a new country”. Although tens of thousands of demonstrators have mobilised in a series of protests since October, the question remains whether a strictly non-partisan political movement, such as MostMi!, has a future.
The weather was certainly not in favour of the organisers: the sleety rain and January freeze probably deterred a good number, leaving an estimated 11,000 to attend the latest Facebook event. While perhaps the majority represented the older generation, there were many young people and some families too.
Some of those active in party politics, such as András Schiffer and Bernadett Széll from LMP, or Koppány Bendegúz Szarvas, chairman of the Young Democrats (IDE), were present but were not wanted on stage. As Zsolt Várady, one of the main organisers, stated in his opening speech, he neither wanted to cooperate with any parties of the past, nor was it the goal of MostMi! to become one.
While his words might still reflect the short-term aims of the movement, Várady announced two days after the demonstration that he was quitting MostMi!, due to lack of time and disagreements with the other founder, Bori Takács.
Next, Bernadette Somody from Eötvös Károly Institute criticised the constitution created by Fidesz; according to her, a new one is necessary that also respects the rights of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender/Transexual) and homeless people.
Social inequalities remained a recurrent theme, Tessza Udvarhelyi, cultural anthropologist, and Zsolt Csizi, an actvist of A Város Mindenkié (The City is for Everyone) group, highlighted the societal gap. Udvarhelyi, who has been working in the civil sphere for fifteen years, called for the end of discrimination based on skin colour, religion and ethnicity. Housing, democracy and solidarity – her words were greeted by a choir of trumpets that survived the New Year’s Eve celebrations and a steady chanting of “Orbán, go away”.
The next speaker, Gábor Vágó, previously an MP of LMP, was now presented simply as a “Hungarian citizen”. He talked about the Fidesz government turning its back on those who don’t belong to its privileged elite and called for civil action beyond the demonstration.
Technical problems then made it difficult for all to hear linguist Lászlo Kálmán’s speech about the importance of decentralisation. The protest was closed by democracy expert Csaba Madarász and Bori Takács. The latter excitied the crowd when he mentioned Hungary’s strengthening ties with Russia and the planned restriction of the law of assembly, introduced by Fidesz MP Gergely Gulyás.
The protest ended with the national anthem and a small fight over an anti-EU flag, but otherwise the event was peaceful. It was a lesser event than the demonstration against the proposed internet tax in October, which was the biggest anti-government protest in the past four years.
The subsequent dropping of the tax, at least in its planned form, gave rise to the subsequent rallies against corruption in the National Tax and Customs Administration, the new state budget and general discontent with the government. While these attracted fewer people, the regular 5-10,000 attendees obviously included many new to anti-Fidesz protests.
However, technical problems that should not happen and the lack of experience of most speakers are not the only matters of concern. From the way the crowd responded to the speeches, there is clearly a gap between the speakers’ ideals of long-term societal change and what the participants expect from protests like these. “Orbán, go away” was still by far the most popular reaction to everything said on stage, despite all speakers asserting that simply changing the current government would not solve any problems. It is doubtful whether the goals of creating social equality, solidarity and a bottom-up democracy are enough to unite people behind them in the long run.
Although some of the attendees may agree with this in principle, they came to show their discontent with the direction the country is headed and want immediate change; talks about the constitution and an almost utopian society without social inequalities are not responding to their demands. The complete lack of a tradition of civil movements in Hungary and the fact that people still expect change from politicians rather than their own acts, can weigh against the success of MostMi! as well.
Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Democratic Coalition (DK) had already tried to take over the most recent event by arriving with party flags, against the explicit wish of the organisers. DK finally decided to stay away this time but it is likely that politicians from the opposition will keep trying to join the movement with their own parties. The example of One Million for the Freedom of Press in Hungary (Milla), the group behind the last wave of successful mass protests in the opposition in 2011 and 2012, can be alarming. It had also wanted to distance itself from the entire political elite of the past but ended up partnering with ex-prime minister Gordon Bajnai in his losing electoral coalition (Milla quit the party before the elections, due to the involvement of Gyurcsány, but it was not enough to save it as a civil movement).
According to Medián’s latest poll, the shaken popularity of Fidesz has meant an increase in the number of people without a party preference; the disillusionment with existing parties proves the point of MostMi! not to seek cooperation with them. But staying away from the party system will not be enough in itself to preserve the force and credibility of the movement. The quitting of Várady means that one of its founders and an emblematic figure of the protests since October is gone. While it is yet to be seen how his decision will affect the future of MostMi!, a rupture in the organisation so early on is certainly not a promising sign.
The next test will be at the protest on February 2, on the occasion of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Budapest. Possibilities are round-table discussions and presentations about community initiatives. While it is perhaps naive to call these the first steps of the formation of an active civil society, they reflect MostMi!’s vision to change society’s approach to politics before attempting to form a new opposition.
It remains to be seen whether they can learn from their mistakes and grow into a strong movement, or even a new party before the next elections.