After 25 Years, Have Hungarians Finally Realized They Live in a Democracy?

Demonstrators in Budapest, October 2014. Photo by Marietta Le.

Demonstrators in Budapest, October 2014. Photo by Marietta Le.

Marietta Le is Global Voices’ Hungarian editor and a staff member of Atlatszo, a leading transparency NGO in Budapest.

With a New York Times front page story and two minutes of laughter with John Oliver, Hungary rose to fleeting mass media fame, thanks to the Hungarian government's plan to introduce a special tax on Internet traffic.

The notion that Hungary is becoming an ‘illiberal state’ is nothing new

To some people, the notion that Hungary, a Central European country that joined the democratic Western hemisphere in 1989 (and the Berlin Wall fell exactly 25 years ago), is aiming to become an ‘illiberal state’, and that its Prime Minister is setting more or less authoritarian countries as examples to follow for his people, is nothing new. But if you are not a liberal lunatic fighting for civil liberties in whatever country is threatening freedom according to your point of view, then you probably didn’t know that the fall of this newborn democracy began long before these last few weeks.

When the current government came into office in 2010, one of their first orders of business was to change the constitution and the Media Act. In Hungary, if your party receives two thirds majority at national elections, you will never have to worry about convincing opposition party members to vote for your proposals in Parliament. You can just pass any bill you want.

Citizens gave the government the mandate to change the laws — that’s what a member of the governing Fidesz party would argue now, and true dat, as my developer friends say, people didn’t say a word when it came to a new constitution, a new Media Act, or transferring money from private pension funds to state pension funds. They weren’t even bothered by the fact that at some point, tens of thousands gathered on the streets and cried over the tomb of democracy under the name “One million for the Freedom of Press in Hungary.”

No one knew in 2010 or in 2012 that the government would amend the election law to facilitate its own way back to a two-thirds majority in 2014. No one knew that it would crack down on NGOs running projects funded by the Norway Grant, a program designed to assist underdeveloped EU countries.  

Do you live in a country where activists are terrified when they see a police car in front of their offices? Hungarians do.

As soon as the governing Fidesz was elected to its second term, the Government Control Office (a state auditing body) started investigating the spending of NGOs that had received Norway Grants. Police raided the office of Ökotárs, a donor organization, looking for evidence of an alleged embezzlement and unofficial granting of loans to NGOs. Lists of problematic organizations were drafted. Thirteen NGOs, mainly focused on fighting corruption and promoting democracy, were put under special scrutiny because of their activities. 

The Ökotárs raid happened on a Monday morning. Days later, former European Commission president José Manuel Barroso visited Hungary to receive an honorary doctorate from Corvinus University. One of the “listed” NGOs, which had offices just behind the university, was surrounded by law enforcement forces sent there to protect the special guest. Emails started flying around about a new crackdown, now at a grantee organization. Hours later we received an email from a frightened NGO worker. She cried when she got home after spending hours fearing a police raid at her office. Her daughter drew her a heart and wrote “Happiness never leaves” inside the shape. 

“For the first time, it wasn’t only lunatic activists that protested”

As an NGO worker I often worry that citizens are worn out by us constantly sounding the alarm over the grave of Hungarian democracy. But the Internet traffic tax, “netadó” in Hungarian, changed people’s stance towards what the government has been doing for many years. For the first time, it wasn’t only lunatic activists who protested. Young and old were on the streets of Budapest, with memes drawn by hand. People belted out chants about servers, Twitter and Facebook. They wore Guy Fawkes masks, despite this being forbidden by law. Finally, it looked like a whole new generation understood that they have to stand up for their rights. It not longer seemed like a question anymore — people finally could see that all the measures taken by the government were aimed at a certain goal: state capture

Still, many think the Internet tax proposal was just “disinformation” — false information spread in order to distract the public from important events. This is a concept we remember from the times before 1989. It’s spooky to think that the Berlin Wall fell just 25 years ago. We have entered a period of Hungary’s history when the government is aiming to limit citizens’ rights to the same extent as then, and now almost explicitly and exclusively to their own benefit. 

Free Country, Free Internet

The Prime Minister decided to freeze the Internet tax proposal after the second protest, when tens of thousands gathered on the streets of Budapest shouting not only “Free Country, Free Internet” and that he should resign, but also that they were not going to pay taxes to a corrupt tax authority. The PM explained that the Internet tax is not new, merely an extension of the already existing special taxes on the telecommunication industry. Although discussions about the Internet tax have died down recently, we're still expecting a “National Consultation” about it in January.

People might be worn out by living in a badly managed young democracy, but they can’t be misled for ever. I hope Hungarians always knew what was going on, but that they just had a lot on their minds, had to focus on making ends meet. Maybe the Internet tax really has converted citizens’ disappointment with almost everything in the country into action, forcing them finally to stand up against corruption.

On Sunday Hungarians held a rally, demanding that the Tax Authority president resign. Among the speakers was András Horváth, the “Hungarian Snowden”, who just a year ago leaked documents proving that the Tax Authority constantly excuses networks of companies involved in tax fraud, and that corruption is “embedded in the system.” The leaks ignited only a few protests, with only hundreds showing up.

But with the US government now banning certain Hungarian officials from travel to the US, we learn that even they had information on high-profile corruption in our country. Zsolt Várady, the founder of Hungary’s first social network which was once larger than Facebook, announced that he would launch a new social network for people who want to make a difference in Hungary. He said Hungarian citizens’ mindset will need to change in order to change the mindset of the political elite. 

And it is not just high-profile corruption that is on the table. Speakers at the Sunday event raised the idea of a systemic change in Hungary’s taxation. Tax evasion has been talked about as a “national game” but now even citizens seem to demand a change in course. Speakers called on the crowd to start talking to their neighbors about problems with petty corruption. They told them to visit the local Tax Authority branch and ask office workers there if the president of the Authority has resigned yet. 

As a conclusion, I can only repeat the words of Zoltan Békési, a Hungarian artist and entrepreneur. It's been 25 years that we've been playing the game of democracy. It's about time we started taking it seriously.

Marietta Le is Global Voices’ Hungarian editor and a staff member of Atlatszo, a leading transparency NGO in Budapest.


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