Running slowly through a colonnaded tunnel, the train comes to a screeching stop in a charming station decorated with tiles dating back to 1896. Budapest’s Line 1 is the second oldest underground in the world, after London’s.
Not far away, in a typical 19th century burgher’s house, a tall man in a grey sweater, his hair close-cropped, sits waiting in a room. His name is Peter Konya (42), and in recent months his name has been pronounced in Hungary with growing respect and hope.
Everyone feels their country is on the edge of the abyss. After many years of living off credit, without reforms, and 20 months into the authoritarian government of Viktor Orbán, Hungary faces bankruptcy and political upheaval.
Konya himself does not sit comfortably in this quarter of the former Hungarian bourgeoisie. He is the new leader of the Solidarity movement, which defends the interests of the impoverished population. „The unions have loaned us the rooms,“ says his translator and colleague János Boris (68). „We ourselves have nothing but our own energy and enthusiasm for the cause.“
This “cause" has been growing with astonishing speed. In early January they organised the largest demonstrations since 1989 in Budapest and, according to conservative estimates, at least fifty thousand people came. “We also made a breakthrough in inviting the democratic parties of the opposition," says Boris, who with other activists is trying to marshal the growing resistance to the Orbán government into an umbrella association under the name EMD (“One Million for Democracy”).
Total control over the democratic institutions
Solidarity is no ordinary civic movement. „Yes, we modelled ourselves after Poland’s Solidarność,“ says Konya, whose authority and popularity is rising sharply. The movement was triggered when Orbán’s government began to cut salaries for teachers, soldiers, firefighters and police officers. „We founded Solidarity as a political movement in September, and the unions are supporting us, although they haven’t joined us because they want to stay out of politics.“
At first glance unobtrusive and taciturn, this man whose authority and popularity have risen rapidly, was until recently a major in the Hungarian army and head of the trade union of military servicemen. Not long ago he quit, before he was let go by his superiors, and became the leader of the movement.
Its strength is indeed nourished by the arrogance of the Orbán government, and Konya admits that if the economic situation were not so dire „the resistance would not be so strong.“
Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party, which have ruled parliament thanks to the overwhelming electoral victory in April 2010, have gradually exerted total control over the democratic institutions and passed laws whose purpose is to entrench them in power over the next decades.
Suspending Hungary’s voting rights
The transformation into an increasingly authoritarian regime in a member country of the European Union has long disturbed Brussels. It has been Orbán’s interventions in the economy, however, that have truly rattled the EU.
To shrink the huge public debt of around 80 percent of GDP that the previous leftist government left behind and to keep his promise to cut the annual deficit, Orbán nationalised private pension funds and imposed a drastic tax on banks and big companies with foreign ownership.
However, 20 months on, the national debt is even higher than when he came to power. The forint weakened by 20 percent to a staggering 320 forints to the euro, provoking a dramatic leap in state debt.
At the turn of the year Orbán was then forced to ask the International Monetary Fund and EU for aid, which in the summer of 2010 he had proudly refused.
The IMF, however, has made its support conditional on the deletion of the constitutional provision under which Orbán brought the central bank under state control. The EU is already preparing a case against Hungary at the EU Court of Justice and has not ruled out freezing money from the euro funds or suspending Hungary’s voting rights in the EU.
Television quiet about demonstrations
Hungarians are watching this entire story play out partly as shocked spectators and partly as frightened victims of an incomprehensible turn of events. They elected Orbán because he promised them a better life. A year and a half later, however, they are worse off than before. Fears of a weakening forint are prompting a flight of euros into bank accounts in Austria and the Slovak Republic, which is bleeding the Hungarian economy even more.
Visitors to Budapest from neighbouring countries in central Europe are struck by the sight of large number of older men and women huddled in old coats and wandering aimlessly through the city. Statistics show that 30 percent of Hungarians are under the poverty line. The city, whose wealth and fame peaked in the 19th century, is trying to hold onto its majestic past, but in some streets away from the centre bags of trash are piling up on the sidewalks and plaster is flaking off once-palatial house fronts.
Those who turn away from the evidence of decay are confronted with it by posters on streetlights advertising tHungary’s most important business magazine, HVG. On its black cover there shines out just one word: Vége (The End).
However, only one thing is certain: Viktor Orbán still holds the reins of power firmly in his grip, though perhaps not for much longer. If international pressure eases off, his own position as indomitable leader of the nation, on which his power is based, will weaken. If the pressure does keep up, the country will go bankrupt and the reins will be torn from Orbán’s hands by events coming on at their own reckless pace.
For as long as he can, he will try to preserve this strange calm before the storm. Television stations, most of which are under the influence of the government, have been quiet about the historic demonstrations, the only visible effect of which is a large word sprayed in black paint onto the sidewalk in front of the Opera: "Elég!" (“Enough!").
Translated by Anton Baer