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Geopolitics

Viktor Orbán May Be Far More Vulnerable Than You Think

Orbán's Fidesz party won an unprecedented fourth term last April. However, even as the prime minister consolidates his power, he faces growing opposition at home. Teachers are protesting, inflation is rising, and Orbán's blaming his favorite target, the EU, is wearing thin.

photo close up of viktor orban

Viktor Orban at an Economic Forum in Berlin

Stanislav Zhelikhovskyi

October 23 is the anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and this year thousands of people marched through Budapest to protest the current government of Viktor Orbán. They demanded higher salaries for teachers' and called for curbs on inflation, not unlike demonstrations elsewhere around the world.

But Orbán's Hungary is its own singular reality, even if the world is still trying to understand the four-time prime minister's ultimate intentions. It is not the first time he has faced protests, but current efforts to calm the waters have done little to calm the waters.


Is this time different?

​One country, two worlds

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 holds a special place in the historical memory of Hungarians. It was a struggle for freedom against Communist repressions, a heroic but tragic page in the country's history.

Sixty-six years ago, tens of thousands of citizens of what was then the Hungarian People's Republic, including students and intellectuals, opposed the communist regime controlled by the Soviet Union. They marched to demand political and economic reforms.

But then protests were brutally suppressed by invading Soviet troops and the Hungarian state security agencies. Many participants of the revolution were killed.

Budapest's rhetoric against Brussels has escalated further

A lot has changed since then. The USSR no longer exists, and Hungary has long been a member of the OSCE, the European Union, NATO and other prestigious organizations.

However, in 2010, Orbán's national-conservative and Eurosceptic Fidesz party came to power. For 10 years, democratic freedoms in the country have steadily been eroded. And linked to that reality, Budapest generally has better connections with Moscow than the West, and he is occasionally openly hostile to European institutions.

Orbán vs. the EU

Russia's large-scale aggression against Ukraine has not changed the situation. Orbán openly condones Kremlin propaganda, and Hungary has become the only Western country neighboring Ukraine that has refused to provide its territory for the supply of weapons. Moreover, since the beginning of the war, the Hungarian government has been doing everything possible to continue receiving Russian gas and oil.

At the same time, Budapest's rhetoric against Brussels has escalated further. At the first opportunity, Orbán accuses the EU of grievous sins, speaking of problems in Hungary itself, in particular, due to EU sanctions that adversely affect the country's economy. He also openly predicts the collapse of the European Union.

Something similar happened during the celebration of the anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, when on Oct. 23, Orbán gave a speech in the Hungarian city of Zalaegerszeg. He accused the West of "betraying" the revolutionaries and Brussels, implying that the EU had denied Hungary the allocation of funds from European funds.

“Let's not bother with those who shoot at Hungary from the shadows or from the heights of Brussels,” he said.

However, despite the considerable support of Orbán's policy among the population, the whole country by no means agrees. The massive street protests that took place on the same day clearly prove this.

Why are Hungarians protesting Orbán?

Just like 66 years ago, thousands of Hungarian teachers and students took to the streets of Budapest. However, there was a significant difference. Instead of banners with anti-Soviet slogans, the protesters held placards “Orbán get lost.”

The protests were triggered by underfunded schools and intimidation of teachers who demanded better conditions, particularly by restricting the right to strike.

After many years of futile requests to increase salaries, teachers decided to increase pressure on the current government. That is why Sunday's march was the largest in recent times. The organizers promised to continue the protests.

Remarkably, Orbán has used the protest to attack Brussels. Thus, the government links the salary increase to the long-awaited EU funding, which has been delayed due to concerns about corruption and violation of democratic standards in Hungary.

The Hungarian demonstrations are most likely based not only on demands for improving educational principles but also on unhappiness at the government's policy in general, in particular, its anti-European and pro-Russian stance. During the protest on Oct. 23, there were Ukrainian flags among the protesters, as well as the placards “Russians, go home!”.

At a protest against Hungary's Russian oil ban exemption in Warsaw, Poland

Aleksander Kalka/ZUMA

Home economics

Last Sunday's demonstration was not the first anti-government demonstration in Hungary this year.

One of them took place in Budapest in July after the parliament passed a government bill limiting the use of the preferential tax rate for small businesses (KATA tax). These were the first serious social protests after another victory for Fidesz in this year's parliamentary elections.

The fact is that, according to the adopted law, at least 300,000 of the 400,000 people who paid the tax for small business must choose another, less favorable tax regime, which will lead to a decrease in income or abandonment of a business.

The Fidesz party is likely to face the toughest challenges of its time in power

About a thousand people took part in the protest. It began on the square in front of the parliament during the debates, and then moved to the nearby Danube Bridge. Protesters blocked traffic on the bridge in both directions for about an hour until they were pushed back by the police.

But this did not stop the demonstrators, and they gathered again. At the beginning of October, at least 10,000 Hungarian teachers launched the “I want to teach” campaign and called for civil disobedience. The demonstrators formed a human chain that stretched for kilometers across Budapest, and the bridge near the parliament was closed for cars and public transport.

Orbán's biggest challenge yet

It happened again in the middle of the month, when thousands of Hungarian students and their parents protested to support teachers and professors who fought for higher salaries during the previous campaign.

The authorities acknowledge the problem. Hungarian parliament speaker Laszlo Kover said that teachers’ salaries are below average, but he said “strike is not the solution”. The government, following its usual rhetoric, says that it will increase the teachers’ salaries when the EU allocates funds from the Reconstruction Fund.

However, Orbán's government previously announced a 10% salary increase for teachers in 2022 and the following two years, but unions consider it insufficient. So the protests will continue.

Thus, although the Fidesz party won a landslide victory in the current parliamentary elections, it is likely to face the toughest challenges of its time in power, such as inflation, a low exchange rate for its forint, and a possible lack of payments from EU funds.

Such a situation will obviously encourage more and more actions of civil disobedience. If the government does not revise its domestic and foreign policy, it will look more and more like a colossus with feet of clay. And the moment of its fall will only be a matter of time.


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