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Weeklies on anti-government demonstrations

April 17th, 2017

After a week of demonstrations in support of the American-Hungarian Central European University and watchdog NGOs, but before Good Saturdays rally in Szabadság (freedom) square, Hungarian weeklies ponder if the current wave of protest will fatally wound the governing forces or share the fate of previous ad hoc movements and fade away.

In his Demokrata editorial, Péter Bándy accepts the governments explanation that it never intended to close down CEU or any other university. Thus, he believes that the demonstrations are aimed at shaking public trust in the government, rather than defending the freedom of education. He quotes President Zeman of the Czech Republic who opposed the idea of hosting CEU in Prague, if it has to leave Hungary, and suggested CEU might function as the brain trust of Ukraine-style violent demonstrations. Mr Zeman said he preferred democratic elections to Maidans. Bándy suggests that science and academia are covers for ideological training at CEU, and the government simply intends to deprive this university of its status of being above the law. Since the opposition cannot hope to vote the government out of office any time soon, he continues, the usual Soros methods are being deployed: stoking hysteria, provocations, international pressure. Bándy concludes that the electoral campaign till next spring will be unprecedentedly dirty, and supporters of the government must be prepared to re-occupy the streets.

Heti Válasz editor Gábor Borókai calls the procedure adopted by the government to pass the amended Higher Education Act hasty and even brutal. There is no doubt in his mind that it was directed against CEU and it was interpreted as such by most people inside and outside Hungary, he adds. The people of the Soros network had thus an easy game to retaliate, while government supporters who agree with curbing what he regards as the privileges of CEU are finding it difficult to defend the move because of its abrupt character.  Despite the price the government is paying in terms of young urban citizens turning against it, the match may end in a draw for the government side, Borókai thinks, because by attacking Soros-funded institutions, it may win over rural Jobbik supporters.

In his first piece in Heti Válasz after he left the weekly for Mandiner over a year ago, András Stumpf writes that CEU could not operate with the same privileges it enjoys in Hungary in 13 out of the 16 German Lander. He thinks, however, that the new law was an expression of the governments conviction that George Soros was the man behind an alleged US attempt to overthrow the Hungarian government in 2014 (see e.g. BudaPost, December 23, 2014). If the Prime Minister hoped to count on support from the new US administration in this effort, Stumpf continues, he was mistaken. The State Department condemned the law in very crude terms, and although its staff members are basically those appointed under President Obama, the matter may be considered an American interest rather than a Soros grievance. It is no mere coincidence that Hungary hasnt found one single Republican congressman to support its case, Stumpf argues. All in all, he believes the matter has significantly worsened the governments chances of finding an ally in the Trump administration. In an aside, he does not think that Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi, a former advisor to PM Orbán and a known Atlanticist, was dismissed because of the CEU affair. She was reported to be on bad terms with FM Péter Szíjjártó as well as with her deputy, a man sent to Washington by János Lázár, the Cabinet minister in charge of the secret services, he reports quoting unnamed diplomatic sources.

In Magyar Narancs, philosopher János Kis, the founding president of the now defunct Liberal Party (the Alliance of Free Democrats) and now a professor at CEU thinks that the latest set of conflicts may signal the demise of the Orbán regime. By passing what he calls lex CEU, the PM, Kis believes, has crossed a red line. He finds the PMs attitude toward migrants even more base, but the latest move might be more self-damaging because as Kis sees it, it may closet the Hungarian leader in the same group with Presidents Putin of Russia and Erdogan of Turkey. Within Hungary, he adds, the Conference of University Rectors and the President of the Academy of Sciences have condemned the amended Higher Education Act in unprecedented unison. This compels the Prime Minister to fight on all fronts simultaneously. Moreover, Kis suggests, he is left with no good options. By retreating he would lose prestige, while by sticking to his original plan he might turn further people and institutions against him. At any rate, Kis concludes, even if the protests die down before the regime crumbles, Hungary will never be the same as it was before lex CEU.

In Figyelő, editor Tamás Lánczi interprets the widespread opposition to the new Higher Education Law as proof that George Soros wields real political power. Whether he  organised the protests within Hungary and abroad or not, he is a serious political player. Lánczi recalls a series of isolated incidents of the same kind, including the movement against the Media Act in 2011, another against the Fundamental Law, and a third against the Higher Education reform, and finally the teachers movement last year. He sees these as built on the same conspiratorial pattern: grab a particular layer of the population which might feel it has been treated unfairly, and try to generalise its protest and spread it throughout the population. These attempts never last long, he suggests. The problem Lánczi sees on the opposition side is that they think they can skip doing the tiresome homework of building a constituency, as Fidesz did, and try to exploit some readymade protest movements instead. The pro-government pundit concedes that political winds may change direction, but does not believe that such methods can lead the opposition to building an attractive alternative.

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