OCTOBER 23rd is a resonant date for Hungarians. Fifty-five years ago the failed anti-Soviet uprising began when teenage street fighters starting lobbing Molotov cocktails at Russian tanks. The revolution was crushed by the Soviets, but remains seared into the country’s collective consciousness.
The young, middle-aged and elderly protestors at yesterday’s demonstration in Budapest hoped to capture the spirit of 1956. Tens of thousands of them marched under the banner of Nem tetszik a rendszer? ("You don’t like the system?"). See video footagehere.
Organised by a Facebook group, the protest was peaceful, good-humoured and crackling with energy, despite the rain and winds. The crowds stretched from the Elizabeth Bridge into the heart of the city, and probably exceeded the numbers at the first such mass protest in March this year.
Budapest is hardly the only European capital to be convulsed by protest at the moment. But the Hungarian crowds were not focused on the iniquities of global capitalism. They were protesting against what they see as the government’s increasing centralisation of power.
This, they say, has taken several forms. Once-independent institutions such as the state presidency have been filled with supporters of the ruling Fidesz party, independent-minded journalists have been sacked or sidelined, and civil servants have been purged simply for having served under the former, Socialist, administration.
Opposition politicians were spotted in the crowd yesterday, but none was allowed to speak. Instead Péter Juhász, an organiser, praised the crowd for “listening to our voice for democracy” and Balázs Dénes, of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, warned of a political system based on “muscle-flexing”.
But as Mr Dénes noted, outrage counts for little. The question is how to channel the energy and dissatisfaction on display yesterday. Of the opposition parties, neither the imploding Socialists nor the green-liberal LMP party seems capable of that. So where next?
The non-party-political nature of the Facebook group appeals to many. If it were to morph into a new party, it could lose many of its supporters. But with no organisational base to channel the protestors' civic spirit, little can change.
In any case, the government roundly rejects the protestors’ claims. Last April Fidesz won the biggest parliamentary majority in any Hungarian election since the fall of communism. After eight years of sloth and corruption under the Socialists, the government has a clear mandate for change, and intends to pursue it. Yesterday's protest was clear evidence that democracy is thriving in Hungary, say officials.
Only a thousand or so people turned up to a separate march organised by Jobbik, a nasty far-right party. Gábor Vona, Jobbik’s leader, pledged to finish the 1956 revolution, under a banner proclaiming Kimentek a tankok, bejöttek a bankok ("The tanks left, the banks came in").
Yet the small size of the Jobbik protest belies the far-right’s growing influence, in culture as well as politics. György Dörner, the new director of the Új Szinház (New Theatre), one of Budapest's cultural institutions, is an outspoken supporter of the far right. His first appointment was István Csurka, a talented playwright who is also leader of MIEP, an anti-Semitic party.
The decision by István Tarlós, Budapest's mayor and a Fidesz man, to give Mr Dörner the job caused outrage, especially as the outgoing director had reapplied for his post. As Jobbik rises in the polls, many saw Mr Dörner's appointment as a gesture by Fidesz to far-right voters that it will look after their interests.
Hungary has a dazzling cultural heritage. But the appointment of Mr Dörner, previously best known for voicing Eddie Murphy and Bruce Willis characters in dubbed films, has done little for its image. Christoph Von Dohnanyi, a prominent German conductor, has cancelled planned appearances at the Hungarian State Opera. In a letter, he said that he “does not want to appear in a city whose mayor entrusted the direction of a theatre to two known, extreme right-wing anti-Semites”.
But Mr Tarlós is not listening. After several Hungarian theatre figures wrote an open letter complaining about the decision he reportedly described them as “inconsiderate, irritating and contemptible”. Such remarks are likely only to bring out more demonstrators on to Budapest’s streets.