Outrage over austerity measures and government arrogance
Hungarian police used tear gas and water cannon against thousands of protesters in Budapest, the capital city, last night (Monday 18 September). The clashes happened after a rally demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, after it was revealed his government lied during the general elections, last April. Smaller protests took place in other cities and towns. When protesters were prevented from handing in a petition at the state television building, in the capital, youths stormed the offices. Hundreds of protesters were injured. Today (Tuesday, 19 September) the city is reportedly quiet.
What enraged protesters was the content of a speech the prime minister made to his ‘Socialist Party’ members, a few weeks after he won last April’s general elections. A tape of the speech was leaked and played by Hungarian radio, last Sunday. During the meeting, on 26 May, around a month after the governing coalition won 210 of the 386 parliamentary seats, Gyurcsany said harsh economic ‘reforms’ are needed. “There is not much choice. There is not, because we screwed up. Not a little, a lot. No European country has done something as boneheaded as we have.”
“Evidently, we lied throughout the last year and a half, two years”, the PM continued. “It was totally clear that what we are saying is not true.”
Gyurcsany thanked “divine providence, the abundance of cash in the world economy and hundreds of tricks” for keeping the Hungarian economy “above board.”
The most politically aware workers and young people know that capitalist politicians, like Gyurcsany, lie routinely. They “lied in the morning, we lied in the evening”, to use the prime ministers’ cynical words. But to hear it from the mouth of the prime minister, in a speech peppered with obscenities, is something different. It publicly reveals the complete disdain in which the ruling elite hold working people.
The broadcast leak immediately led to protests across the country. Demonstrations were already planned this week against government cuts. Gyurcsany aims to limit the budget deficit to 10.1% of GDP and announced deeply unpopular spending and unemployment cuts, as well as higher taxes and direct fees for health services and university tuition. The Prime Minister’s leaked relevations were, for many Hungarians, “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.
According to the BBC Online, “some commentators suggest the leak may be with the prime ministers’ permission, as he posted the full transcript on his own web blog.” The BBC speculates Gyurcsany may be trying to emphasise “the need for tough reforms”, ahead of elections on 1 October. Analysts think the “media-savvy” Gyurcsany sanctioned the leaked tape to show his determination to push through “unpalatable reforms”.
If so, Prime Minister Gyurcsany’s plan backfired spectacularly. As popular outrage at his arrogant remarks grew, Gyurcsany was forced to go on television on Sunday and claim the “lies” he referred to were by those politicians who the people they could have “happiness as a gift”.
However, at the time of the collapse of the old Stalinist regime, pro-capitalist politicians and the Western capitalist governments sold Hungarians the great lie that the profit-driven market economy would transform living standards for the majority. After more than a decade of capitalist policies, Gross National Income per capita is only US $10,030 (World Bank, 2006). Joblessness is high and welfare services massively deteriorated. Following the election victory of the ‘Socialists’, (the misnamed party that developed out a section of the old ruling communist party), last April, severe ‘austerity measures’ announced by Gyurcsany resulted in the coalition government’s support plummeting.
For the ruling elite, however, the last decade of capitalism was a bonanza. Gyurcsany is a typical representative of the greedy, ruthless ruling ‘Establishment’. A former leader of the communist youth movement in the 1980s, like many other former apparatchiks he became a millionaire through buying state assets in the early years of privatisation, following the fall of the Stalinist system. This grand thief of public resources only ‘entered’ politics in 2002 as a “strategic adviser” to the former PM. After a row with his Socialist Party’s ‘liberal’ coalition partner, The Alliance of Free Democrats, Sports Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany succeeded Prime Minister Peter Medyessy, in a government reshuffle. Following re-election in 2006, Gyurcsany unveiled plans to cut public sector jobs and raise taxes, ahead of euro-zone membership in 2010. The Hungarian government was hailed as a ‘model’, a ‘Blairite’ East European regime, by Western governments.
At the time of writing, it is not clear if anti-government protests will continue and grow. The government will desperately try to defuse the situation, and wants all the main parties to put a ‘united front’ to the masses, calling for “law and order” while the government ruthlessly attacks living standards. The prime minister warned he would crackdown on any more street protests.
But protests could grow, demanding Gyurcsany resigns and for an end to cuts. Huge anger, just beneath the surface of society, could be unleashed, rocking the government and the ruling elite to their foundations.
Even if there is a pause in protests, it will be temporary, as workers and youth will be forced to take protest action to fight government social cuts and neo-liberal policies. Workers will not find a real alternative in the opposition party, Fidesz, which is ahead of the coalition government in polls. The “right wing opposition party” Fidesz said it will boycott parliament and calls for Gyurcsany to resign. But this party also follows capitalist policies and would not be fundamentally different to the present coalition government, if it comes to power.
The last days of street demonstrations led many workers and youth to draw comparisons with the uprising against Stalinist rule in October 1956. “Nothing like this has happened since 1956”, a young protester told Reuters news agency. The recent protests outside the state television buildings carried an echo of the 1956 revolt, during which students besieged the main radio station in Budapest to demand their grievances were read out on air. Commentators also refer to unrest during the collapse of Stalinism in the late 1980s. By exploiting (and distorting) the 1956 Uprising for their own class interests, the ruling elite may have roused more than they bargained for.
Undoubtedly, many young Hungarian workers and students are looking at the October 1956 events, on the 50th anniversary of the revolution. It is vital the new generation follows the heroic example of workers and youth, in 1956, that fought to overthrow the rotten elite and for a workers’ solution to society’s problems.
Following WW2, Hungary came under Stalinist rule. Although capitalism and landlordism were abolished, and the planned economy led to important social gains for working people, there was never workers’ democracy. Society was run from the top, by a bureaucratic elite. In 1956, a workers’ uprising attempted to take power, to overthrow the ruling parasitic elite. But the revolution was cruelly crushed by Red Army forces.
After Stalinist suppression, the ruling elite introduced aspects of the market economy, to try to stabilise its rule and to boost the economy. But only genuine workers’ control and management of the planned economy could have transformed workers lives. By the 1980s, the Hungarian economy stagnated and collapsed. Mass movements across the former Stalinist states had the potential to develop towards a political revolution, but in the absence of a revolutionary socialist party with mass support, pro-capitalist forces were able to fill the political vacuum. Full capitalist restoration was a disaster for workers, with half of Hungary’s economic enterprises privatised within four years, leading to mass unemployment and a dizzying fall in living standards.
Now Hungarian working people are asked to, once again, suffer the ‘necessary medicine’ of more “austerity measures” on their way to a “better life”; massive cuts as the entrance fee to EU membership and ‘eventual’ Euro-zone membership. But the recent experience of EU membership for Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and other former Stalinist states, provides a salutary lesson. Entering the EU club for these countries means widespread cuts and shipping off their youth to Western Europe as cheap labour, while living conditions at home remain miserable.
Given the defeat of the 1956 Uprising, decades of Stalinist dictatorship and the disaster of capitalist restoration, it is to be expected there is widespread political confusion amongst Hungarian workers and youth. Ultra-nationalist and reactionary sentiments were on display amongst those protesting against outside the television studios, late on 18 September. According to the Guardian newspaper, “Some of the protesters last night chanted nationalist slogans and waved flags with red and white ‘Arpad stripes’, a centuries-old Hungarian symbol named after the founder of the country’s first royal dynasty.”
Sections of the ruling elite and politicians regularly whip up Hungarian nationalist moods over the ill-treatment of millions of Hungarian national minorities in neighbouring countries.
But nationalism and obscurantist reactionary ideas will bring no solution to the dire situation facing workers and must be rejected. Through mass struggles, and a studying of past heroic workers’ struggles, like October ’56, working people in Hungary will draw far-reaching conclusions and fight to change society. This entails building genuine, independent workers’ organisations, such as combative trade unions, and a real political alternative; a mass workers’ party, with a bold socialist programme.