Day of Shame

24.10.2006

The Hungarian government sent in the police to forcefully breakup a small, peaceful, and legal demonstration in front of parliament

In what can only be described as a shameful and utter disregard for democracy and human rights, the Hungarian government of former communist Ferenc Gyurcsany sent in the police to forcefully breakup a small, peaceful, and legal demonstration in front of parliament. This, despite earlier promises and guarantees from the authorities that the protesters can stay where they are.

The demonstration in front of parliament has been going on for two months, ever since an audio tape surfaced in where the prime minister admitted to lying to the public "day and night" in order to retain power. Over the weeks, the demonstration has undergone changes; the opposition FIDESZ party had tried to capitalise on the situation and hijack the event, but they eventually withdrew as public attention began to wane.

In the modern world of the attention economy, it's very difficult to keep up the momentum of an event for more than two weeks before it begins to lose its impact. Also, with the various changes the demonstration has undergone over the past few weeks, it seemed to have lost much of its original spirit. Nevertheless, in what is supposedly fundamental to any democratic society, the right to protest by any group for any reason must be respected.

This was the line taken by the president of Hungary last week when it seemed that a showdown was about to occur between the protesters and the authorities. The government and the police wanted to clear the square in front of parliament by October 23rd so that state ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution and featuring dignitaries from several countries could go ahead unimpeded.

Although the protesters promised that they wouldn't disturb the official ceremonies, this wasn't enough for the authorities, even though the protesters had shown to keep their word, as was the case during the national day of mourning for the executed leaders of the 1848 revolution on October 6th. At the last minute, Laszlo Solyom, the president of Hungary, asked the police not to use force to remove the protesters. The authorities relented and allowed the demonstration to stay where it was.

A small victory as it was, the government was still not content with the demonstration in front of parliament. The protest has been a persistent thorn in the side of prime minister Gyurcsany; at first it was merely annoying, now it was becoming embarrassing. As a result, on October 22nd´large billboards were erected in front of the protesters, effectively hiding them from view. Apparently this still wasn't enough, as the crowd was able to whistle their disapproval when the prime minister entered parliament on Sunday for an official reception.

The end game came at 2:00 AM on October 23rd when the police in full force -- some carrying shotgun rifles and backed by water cannon -- drove the protesters from the area. According to the police, they broke up the demonstration because the protesters didn't allow the fire brigade to do a security check in the area, as had been agreed to. Subsequently, the authorities claimed to have found various items which could be used for making bombs, such as charcoal wrapped in socks, as well as knives and other weapons.

Leaders of the demonstration refute these claims, however. They question why the authorities decided to initiate a security action at such an early hour, and that most protesters were willing to abide by the security check. However, as with the riot in front of the Hungarian television building a month ago, a handful of provocateurs seemed to have caused all the trouble; they refused to leave and thus provoked the police action. Most demonstrators are convinced that the so-called "bomb-making" equipment was either planted by the police themselves or brought in by police agents disguised as protesters.

Given the climate of fear and trepidation which has been generated by the mass media and the authorities in the days preceding October 23rd, it wouldn't be surprising if such claims by the protesters turn out to be true. A few days earlier Ildiko Lendvai, a former member of the Communist Central Committee and leader of the Socialist party in parliament, went on Hungarian television ranting about the "half-state of terror" in the country and the fact that most visitors to Hungary are staying outside of Budapest because of the fear of violence. Yet for those who don't pay attention to radio or television and don't bother to read the newspapers, the past few days -- indeed, the past few weeks -- have been like any other in Budapest.

The breakup of the demonstration in front of parliament has left many bitter and disenchanted. Some are afraid that they will not be able to return to the square where they were; others feel that the little bit of momentum which they still had has now been lost. Furthermore, as with the Socialist party headquarters, the barricades which have been erected in front of parliament look set to be a permanent feature in Budapest, at least for the time being.

The lies, contempt, and utter disregard for the right to protest over the past few weeks all show how Hungary's democratic deficit -- like its budget deficit -- is ballooning out of control. Unless some sort of reform is initiated in this area first and foremost, any other kind of reform will be meaningless, for Hungary can't be said to be an integral part of Europe, either financially or politically.

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