BUDAPEST (Reuters) - With Hungary’s conservative prime minister enjoying solid support and his opposition in disarray, Hungarians who united against his plan to tax the Internet believe they have created a new platform to voice dissent.
The biggest street protests since he came to power four years ago forced Orban last week to shelve the tax plan - a stunning U-turn by a man whose big parliamentary majority and popular support usually allow him to wield power unopposed.
The loose collective of students, activists and artists who organized last month’s protests believe they have tapped into a groundswell of a indignation that could now be channeled against other Orban policies.
“This is a colorful group but it is together and it wants to keep going,” said Balazs Gulyas, a 28-year-old student activist who organized the protests via a Facebook page. “We are in the process of finding the way to do this right.”
Orban, who declared in July that he wanted to make Hungary an “illiberal state”, citing his admiration of the political systems of China and Russia, is viewed with concern by the rest of the European Union and by the United States.
But despite taking a tighter grip over the media and pushing hundreds of judges into retirement - steps criticized in Brussels and Washington as authoritarian - the political opposition has been deserted by voters.
That has left a political void that the protest movement — which gathered on Gulyas’s Facebook page “One Hundred Thousand against the Internet tax” - hopes to fill.
“For now there is no movement, there is no organized political resistance,” said Marton Gulyas, 28, an alternative theater company director who joined the protests.
But, said Gulyas, who is not related to Balazs: “The chance for one is in the air.”
After at least 50,000 people attended the tax rallies, and 240,000 joined the Facebook page, the government has not been able to ignore the movement, but it has accused it of being merely a front for the flailing Socialist opposition.
“When political will turns against the government then that is not civil society,” government spokesman, Zoltan Kovacs said.
“Hiding behind civil society groups gives a special color to the Hungarian opposition. If they cannot get anywhere with parties they use civil society groups.”
“Election time is the time for political decisions, and voters in Hungary made their will very clear.”
The Socialists welcomed the tax protest and embraced its main message. But that sympathy was not mutual: most protest speakers and participants made clear that their disdain was aimed at the entire political elite, not just the ruling party.
“They have a right to reject us,” Socialist Chairman Jozsef Tobias told Reuters.
“We still think they organized in a legitimate way and they showed that in a society there must be consequences when the people raise their voices against totalitarian attempts.”
With a two-thirds majority in parliament, Orban’s power is seen as unassailable through the end of his term in 2018.
But the speed at which the tax protests came together showed the power of informal networks of a few tech-savvy activists.
They are still holding meetings, usually in cooperative-run bars with names like Frisco, Aurora, or Back Door dotted around the more bohemian districts of Budapest.
They have a modest fighting fund collected from the protesters - a few thousand euros, according to organizer Karoly Fuzessi, a bearded 30 year-old web designer and philosophy student.
It was to that alternative crowd, rather than the political mainstream where he already had connections, that Balazs Gulyas looked for help after being overwhelmed by the response to his Facebook page.
Gulyas’ mother, Zita Gurmai, was a Socialist member of the European Parliament for a decade until this year, and his father, Mihaly Gulyas, once advised Socialist Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy and still maintains ties with the party.
The young Gulyas was himself a member of the Socialist Party, holding various minor positions before quitting, disillusioned, in August.
When 28-year-old alternative theater director Marton Gulyas agreed to ally his small protest group Human Platform to the anti-Internet tax rallies, he did so on the condition that it break any links with official opposition parties, including the Socialists, protest organizers told Reuters.
Balazs Gulyas agreed, and the protests had no signs of professional politics, such as the party flags that might normally be waved at such events.
Beyond the group that organized the Internet tax protests, several others have formed, aiming to play an active part in the new opposition activity.
They do not resemble anything approaching a coherent group, let alone a political party, but they are gathering support from people opposed to government policies such as plans to cut the number of publicly funded high school places and to replace social security schemes with a public labor program.
The next protest is on Sunday to demand the removal of the head of Hungary’s tax authority who has been banned from entering the United States over accusations of corruption. She denies any wrongdoing.
“The Internet tax was only the trigger of this gathering of people young and old,” 65 year-old Tamas Sovalvi told Reuters at the largest protest on Oct. 28.
“It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Editing by Robin Pomeroy