Hungary: 100,000s teachers, pupils and students demonstrate against Orbán

Orbán_Viktor faces growing opposition from trade unionists and youth (Photo: Elekes Andor/CC)

On Sunday 23 October – the anniversary of the beginning of the workers’ revolution against Stalinism in 1956 – the student movement ADOM and the teachers’ and educators’ unions called for a demonstration in Budapest against the ailing education system. Hundreds of thousands followed the call. The protest was an expression of anger at the general political and economic situation in Hungary, as well as resistance to Orbán’s autocratic regime.

For more than a year, the right-wing Orbán government has ignored the demands of teachers, educators and employees of kindergartens, schools, universities and training centres who want to put an end to the ailing education system and government interference in the content of education. The joint strike committee of the PSZ (teachers’ union) and the PDSZ (democratic teachers’ union) has repeatedly called for strikes and protests. The government responded by dismissing teachers and revoking the right to strike. The unions respond that they are not afraid and will continue. More than 600 teachers have announced that they will resign if only one more teacher is dismissed. Despite the ban, teachers regularly go on strike under the leadership of the unions.

Protest on National Day

The protest on National Day – the anniversary of the beginning of the revolution against Stalinism in 1956 – had special significance. For the first time since coming to power in 2010, the Orbán government did not organise any demonstrations or celebrations in Budapest. Last year, the right-wing Fidesz party and organisations close to it organised large demonstrations and parades. Victor Orbán’s speech took place in the middle of Budapest. This year he spoke in a small town of 50,000 people (supposedly because it is the birthplace of a bishop who played only a minor role in the 1956 revolution). In Budapest, the rumours spread quickly that Orbán was afraid that the official government celebrations would be smaller than the protest of the pupils, students and teachers. On the stage, at the end of the demonstration, was a huge Hungarian national flag with a hole in the middle. This was a symbol of the 1956 popular uprising when the workers and students removed the logo of the Soviet Union – which they associated with the dictatorial regime of the bureaucrats – from the flag of Hungary. The protest declared itself in the tradition of 1956 and in true commemoration of the heroes of 1956.

The demonstration, which was attended by over a hundred thousand people, was particularly marked by the youth. Besides the teachers’ unions, industrial unions also took part, although they did not dominate the protest. On the posters and during the speeches it became clear that the majority was concerned with much more than education. The protest was an expression of the struggle for democracy and against the Orbán regime, in general. The worsening economic situation encouraged more people to take a stand than in previous years. Some EU flags could be seen at the demonstrations – even if they did not make up the majority of the demonstration, they were generally accepted and welcomed. Parts of the population hope that the EU is a partner in the struggle for democracy because of its declarations and actions.

Polarisation and opposition

Hungary is the only country in the EU that purchases large quantities of oil and gas from Russia and negotiates new contracts with Russian energy suppliers. After all, Hungary relies on natural gas from Russia for 80 per cent of its energy. While Orbán condemns the war in Ukraine, he is most outspoken against EU sanctions, which would damage Hungary’s financial stability. In this way, he is also trying to distract attention from the problems in his own country.

The Orbán government is in crisis. The restriction of democratic rights and inflation of over 20 per cent have led to increasing anger. But also a polarisation between Orbán’s opponents and supporters. In the opposition newspapers, Orbán is portrayed as a puppet of Putin, whose policies mean the end of Hungary. Orbán responds just as sharply.

In order to consolidate the power of the government, Orbán resorts on the one hand to a further escalation of the public debate. He called the striking teachers “homosexual communists” or the politicians of the EU institutions from Brussels “snipers shooting at Hungary, who will eventually get what they deserve”. Yet increasingly resorts to direct Bonapartist means to rule.

Orbán’s great electoral success at the beginning of the year can be explained not only by state propaganda and limited democratic rights but also by his publicly financed electoral gifts, such as cheaper petrol and other “relief measures”. Currently, the “National Consultation”, a consultative referendum, is designed to gauge public opinion on the government’s course. The question posed is: “The increase in the price of natural gas will also make agricultural products much more expensive (…) The increase in the price of food in developing countries increases the risk of famine. This will lead to even greater waves of migration than before. And thus increase the pressure on Europe’s external borders. Are you in favour of the sanctions that increase food prices?” The whole of Hungary is full of government posters declaring that the sanctions from Brussels mean the downfall of Hungary. It is clear that with this line of questioning and the massive government campaign, no free, democratic discussion and expression is possible. This week, at the same time, a dispute has erupted in parliament over a proposed change in the law by the Orbán government that could mean a comprehensive withdrawal of state social benefits.

Socialist alternative needed

In the current situation, it is possible that the opposition will strengthen. But the social democratic, liberal and bourgeois parties offer no real alternative. They limit themselves to calling Orbán a puppet of Putin. Their main focus is the fight for reforms that would undo a few undemocratic features of the regime in order to be recognised again as a “democracy” by the EU, as well as the implementation of sanctions against Russia. This would make Hungary eligible for European funding again.

While it is necessary to fight for democratic rights, it is an illusion to believe that the EU is a reliable partner in the struggle or that EU funds alone would improve the financial situation of the majority of Hungarians. Maybe a few crumbs will fall, but in the end, a rich elite will fill its pockets. And it was the EU that demanded and imposed neoliberal measures on Hungary in the past. Implementing the sanctions against Russia would mean an explosion of costs in the middle of winter, which is not affordable for the vast majority of Hungarians.

There is a need for an opposition that both opposes Orbán and confronts illusions in the pro-capitalist EU and takes an independent class position. It is necessary to link the struggle for democratic rights with the struggle for social change – for example, for automatic adjustment of wages and benefits to inflation, for price controls and caps, and the nationalisation of large banks and corporations under democratic control and management. This could be the basis for a socialist democracy in which the working class and youth determine politics and the economy.

The struggle for democratic rights and further demands cannot take place through NGOs and a fixation on purely parliamentary politics. It needs coordinated protests and strikes of all layers of the working class and youth. The fact that the trade unions are now slowly starting to move can be the beginning of new strikes and movements. The youth in revolt and the trade unions, if they cut their links with the former Stalinist, now social-democratic MSZP, can be the starting point for the emergence of an independent workers’ party.

The author, Jens Jaschik, is a member of the Sol (CWI Germany) in Dortmund and was a participant on the Budapest demonstration on 23 October

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November 2022