Thousands of Hungarians rallied against Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government yesterday (15 March), venting their anger over allegations of corruption and a secretive nuclear deal with Russia, Hungary’s former communist overlord.
The rally by civil groups and some left wing parties coincided with an established national holiday and with a new Sunday trading ban that forced most shops to close, despite criticism from the retail sector and an Ipsos survey showing more than two-thirds of people asked were against it.
Protesters expressed disappointment over Orbán’s track record. While his fans hail him as a champion of national sovereignty, his opponents accuse him of a power grab and filling key public sector posts with party loyalists.
“There may have been mistakes over the past 20-25 years, but the country was definitely on the right track,” said Jozsef Banizs, a sales manager in his fifties.
“But now, we have made an about-turn and are headed towards a system that we left behind in 1990,” he said. Hungary held its first free elections after the collapse of communism in 1990.
The groups organised the rally on Facebook. They have called for a referendum on a clampdown on corruption, more transparency in public investments and for details of a €10 billion nuclear deal with Russia to be made public.
The crowd, some bearing Hungarian and European Union flags and banners of leftist groups, broke into chants against Orbán and his Fidesz party several times while marching through Budapest.
Earlier, Orbán said in a speech to mark the anniversary of a 19th century uprising against Hapsburg rule that Hungary should continue to stand up for its rights within the EU.
Economic growth rose to 3.6% last year, while Hungary has dodged a costly bullet with a last-minute conversion of Swiss franc mortgages into forints before the franc’s surge.
Orbán’s Fidesz is still the most popular party among Hungarians but its support has plunged recently and last month it lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority.
“Corruption has permeated every facet of the country, from business life to politics,” said Robert Nagy, a 55-year-old engineer who attended the protest with his wife.
Nagy said his brother-in-law, a local government employee, stayed away from the rally for fears of being reprimanded.
“Many people think like that in this country and a country where many people think like that is not free,” he said.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, leader of the Fidesz party (EPP-affiliated), has clashed repeatedly with the European Union and foreign investors over his unorthodox policies.
In the past four years, Orbán's policies have included a nationalisation of private pension funds, "crisis taxes" on big business, and a relief scheme for mortgage holders for which the banks, mostly foreign-owned, had to pay.
His policies helped Hungary emerge from recession, but some economists say Orbán may have scared off the kind of investment Hungary needs for long-term growth.
Orbán has stated that Europe has "shot itself in foot" by imposing sanctions on Russia, and that he would seek support from other EU countries to improve relations with Moscow.
The European Commission has objected to Hungary's €10 billion plan to expand its Soviet-era Paks nuclear power plant in a deal with Russia, and may force Budapest to revise the terms of the agreement.