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(Don’t) occupy Budapest: the right to protest in Hungarian streets

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Something is rotten in the state of Hungary. The Hungarian government has reserved the entire city centre for celebrations on the upcoming national holiday, effectively blocking potential demonstrations. An overview of the opposition’s reaction

On 16 January the Hungarian NGO milla (‘one million for freedom of press in Hungary’) applied to reserve a place in Budapest city centre for a protest on 15 March. The city authorities responded that all large venues in central Budapest were already reserved. Within two days the news had spread: the Hungarian government had booked out the city centre for celebrations, thus effectively preventing any opposition movements from holding demonstrations. According to some reports the government not only wants to occupy the venues for this year’s celebrations but is also planning to do so for the next two years.

Budapest's streets reserved

More and more demonstrations have been held in Budapest’s streets recently, protesting against new legislation about education and taxing, including laws stripping the media of its freedom as well as against Hungary’s political and economic situation more generally. Notably, on 23 October a demonstration organised by milla attracted tens of thousands of participants, while at the beginning of January 2012 citizens went onto the street to protest against the new constitution. Demonstrators want not just the Hungarian government but also foreign countries to know that a considerable part of the Hungarian nation is not happy with what is happening. One 23-year-old student remarked, ‘I think the reservations make the government look very craven. They seem to be afraid of the voice of the people and of other parties so they want to suppress these demonstrations in a very stupid way. Surely they can’t think that this move will stop people demonstrating. The protesters will find a way to make their voice heard, just as previously they managed to organise demonstrations and get people together mainly via the internet.’

As yet nothing is certain: the largest opposition party MSZP has written to the city mayor István Tarlós to demand that the city free up spaces for demonstrations. Some media such as the site have speculated that the city may well do so, as it is traditional for civil demonstrations to take place on 15 March. Meanwhile, NGOs and other opposition parties are divided between compromise and defiance. Milla insists that they will hold a demonstration on 15 March, even if they have to go to the European court of human rights in Strasbourg to do so. They have applied to reserve Szabad Sajtó street in central Budapest for demonstrations for the next one hundred years. Opposition party LMP also plan to go to court, arguing, like milla, that the Hungarian government’s actions are denying people the right to free assembly. Meanwhile, szolidaritás, an NGO which uses facebook to mobilise citizens, has chosen to work round the problem, holding a protest on 10 March instead.

'I hoped that the government would realise that some of their decisions were the wrong ones'

Nonetheless, the government seems unable to stop the demonstrations with moves like this because the people are determined to make their voices heard. ‘I went to most of the demonstrations against the government up until now, because I wanted other countries to see us,' explains one 31-year-old mother. 'I hoped that the government would realise that some of their decisions were the wrong ones. Hearing this news made me desperate at first, but afterwards I thought that this can’t shut us up. I hope we can find a civilised way to solve the problem.’ Certainly, people still think that it is important that demonstrations continue, with one 26-year-old woman who wants to remain anonymous remarking, ‘Democracy means that we have the right to freedom of speech. That’s something that can’t be broken. However, civil organisations need to be stronger so as to be able to achieve something.’ It may not yet be clear whether the Hungarians’ right to demonstrate will be upheld on 15 March, but at least we can be optimistic that NGOs are taking steps for our rights. If Hungary is still a democratic country we will not have to demonstrate illegally.

Read more from the team at cafebabel Budapest on their blog here

Image: (cc) Csutkaa/ flickr; video courtesy of  (cc) judeyw/ youtube