viktor orban Viktor Orban. Photo: Wikipedia

Prime minister Orban’s attack on the Central European University has inspired strong opposition

Two weeks ago, up to 80,000 people demonstrated against the government in Budapest, the capital city of Hungary.To give a measure of how large this particular protest was, Hungary is a country of under ten million people, of whom about 1.8 million live in Budapest. A comparable demonstration in London on a Sunday evening would have totalled between 400,000 and half a million. The reason for this huge protest, part of a rolling programme of protests, was the decision by the Fidesz government and more particularly its autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orban to fast track legislation, “Lex CEU”, which would effectively close down one of Budapest‘s and Hungary‘s most prestigious academic institutions, the Central European University.

The reason for this attack on CEU is simple. It was founded with a large endowment from the George Soros some 25 years ago. Soros has made billions from currency speculation, but this is not the reason he has become a hate figure for far right politicians. He is a politically-engaged philanthropist who is committed to promoting liberal democracy and an open society. He has been reviled by Putin for allegedly helping the variously coloured revolutions against Russian dominance in some of the former Soviet satellite countries and of course most recently by Donald Trump and his supporters both for his financial backing of Hillary Clinton and allegedly and absurdly paying for the very large demonstrations against Trump following Trump’s election.

But most importantly, Soros is Jewish, although not religiously so. The demonisation of Soros and the denigration of the NGOs and of CEUin Hungary are clearly intended to tap into antisemitic views shared by a significant part of the Hungarian population and beyond. His demonisation in the United States has been similarly inspired by antisemitic far right supporters of Trump. It was also antisemitism which recently led Budapest city council to remove a statue of George Lukacs, Hungary‘s greatest philosopher and also a Jew, from a Budapest park.

The attack on the Central European University has inspired huge opposition in Hungary by those who see the general trend of the Orban government as increasingly autocratic, with strong echoes of the suppression of democracy that existed under “communism”. CEU has also received huge support internationally from academic institutions worldwide, the European Union and perhaps most importantly, and to Orban‘s surprise, from the US State Department. However, thus far Orban and his apparatchiks have remained implacable. More than that, they have upped the implicitly antisemitic rhetoric, produced posters plastered across Budapest once again claiming they were standing up to Brussels, and railed against foreign interference and the alleged vilification of Hungary.

Fidesz is certainly in a strong position in parliamentary terms. Together with their socially conservative coalition partners, the KDNP, they command a two-thirds majority, allowing them to change the constitution any way they choose and they have used this power to gerrrymander the electoral system in their favour. The opposition to the left of them is weak and divided. The successor party to the Hungarian Communist Party held power for a number of years after the collapse of “communism”, but they reinvented themselves as Blairite neo-liberal social democrats. They went on a privatisation binge, ironically partially reversed by the far right Fidesz government, and were mired in corruption. Some of their leading politicians became billionaires as a result of privatisation.

Fidesz has run rings round the parliamentary left with a reactionary populist rhetoric and actions against the Roma people, refugees and the unemployed. Orban proudly proclaims his support for “illiberal democracy” and is clearly inspired by Erdogan in Turkey and moreparticularly Putin in Russia who was recently on a state visit to Hungary. Indeed, some speculate that Orban was encouraged to move against CEU in an effort to further ingratiate himself to Putin.

Arguably the main threat to Fidesz and the threat Orban most fears domestically comes not from the left but from the neo-Nazi Jobbik Party. They have recently plastered Hungary with posters depicting Orban and three of his leading cronies for corruption. However, they too are divided. The leadership has recently downplayed the antisemitism to try to expand its electoral base, and they even supported Lex CEU being referred to the constitutional court. This has incensed their neo-Nazi activists.

The general picture of Hungarian politics is pessimistic, at least for the time being. However, Orban is not all-powerful and his “god complex” can make him prone to miscalculation. Fidesz proposed an introduction of a tax on the internet in October 2014 which prompted the last huge demonstrations in Budapest and led the government to ignominiously drop the idea.

More recently, in October 2016 Orban called a referendum to reject EU proposals for Hungary to take a very small number of refugees to allay the refugee crisis. Despite an enormous poster campaign demonising Brussels and portraying the government in luridly xenophobic and racist terms as standing up for Hungary, the turnout in the referendum was far below 50% and the threshold needed to make the referendum result valid.

After that, a grassroots campaign against Orban‘s idea of bidding for the Hungary to host the Olympics in 2024 led to a referendum being forced on the government. Fearing it might lose it, Fidesz then dropped the proposal.

So Orban can be forced to retreat. But no-one knows whether the combination of international and domestic pressure will encourage him to authorise a face-saving compromise with CEU or to back off the NGOs who are next in line for repressive legislation, or to stand firm in the belief that this is more likely to lead to success in the parliamentary elections scheduled for Spring 2018. In the meantime, the protests continue.