Occupy Hungary?

Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary.Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary. (Photo: Európai Bizottság/ Végel Dániel)This Monday, the Hungarian Parliament passed a constitutional amendment that is raising serious concerns among defenders of civil liberties in Europe. After several years of defeats at the hands of Hungary’s highest Constitutional Court, the conservative right–dominated Parliament voted 265-11 to (in effect) take control over the country’s judicial system and throw into question decades of decisions protecting human rights.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and members of his party Fidesz insist the constitutional changes are only “technical” or cosmetic. The president of the European Commission disagrees, warning that the new amendment could violate the rule of law, and the US State Department has told Orban that the changes “could threaten the principles of institutional independence and checks and balances that are the hallmark of democratic governance.”

[Last] weekend saw days of protest, building on student actions first seen last fall. In this exclusive interview, Márton Gulyás (of Kretakor theater) tells GRITtv about Human Platform, a new coalition comprising groups working in healthcare, education, arts and culture, which played a leading role, alongside the Hungarian Student Network and Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, in bringing thousands into the streets on Saturday and Monday outside the Parliament.

Gulyas says protestors are hoping to wake their country up and with good reason. In Orbán’s Hungary, the broadcast media consist almost entirely of government-friendly outlets; the universities, the central bank and even the country’s most prestigious theaters are being rapidly brought under Fidesz control while funds to independents are being slashed. As Princeton professor and Hungary watcher, Kim Lane Sheppele has detailed, Amendment Four would crush indefinitely the independence of Constitutional Court, which has so far been the only effective check on Orban’s power since his election in 2010.

“The danger is very real,” says Gulyas, who has put his theater career on hold in order to act on the political stage in what he sees as a critical moment.

Since this conversation was recorded, Hungary’s President Janos Ader has signed the amendment, guaranteeing its passage into law. That means that this March 15, when Hungarians are off work for a major national holiday, could see even more massive protests.

March 15, Hungarian “Revolution Day” marks the start of Hungary’s 1848 revolution whose leaders called for (among other things) freedom of the press, equal treatment under the law, religous freedom and minority rights. One hundred and sixty-five years later, Viktor Orbán’s right-wing power grab has protesters calling for many of the same rights. As I learned on a recent trip to Budapest, Hungarians are very fond of quoting their national poet, Sándor Petőfi, a hero of ’48 times. Expect the first line of his celebrated National Song (“Rise Up, Magyar, the Country Calls”) to be recited this year with a whole new resonance.

For more on the student demands, watch this video from Human Platform (click on “CC” for English subtitles). A facebook group to follow: One Million for the Freedom of Press in Hungary.