It’s rare for the usually aloof and cautious European Union commissioners in Brussels to call for street demonstrations in one of the EU’s member states. But since none of the their badgering had blunted the power plays of Hungary’s autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the EU commissioner for digital issues, Neelie Kroes, tweeted support for Hungary’s protesters. They took to the streets last week to protest Orban’s latest attempt to curtail anti-government opinion: a proposed nationwide tax on Internet data traffic — an attack on the country’s the last free platform for free thinking and dissent.
In stark contrast to most of the EU’s admonishing, the protests in Budapest and 10 other Hungarian cities — the biggest demonstrations in recent history — appear to have made Orban stop and rethink. In an unprecedented about-face, he announced Hungary will not pursue the tax, marking an important victory for online freedom not just in Hungary but worldwide. It could signal the beginnings of a new citizen-led movement against Orban and his right-wing Fidesz party, which have made turned Hungary into an increasingly illiberal, authoritarian state since it came to power in 2010.
The proposed tax would have put a 63 cent levy on every gigabit of information accessed over the Internet, costing the average Internet user a maximum of $2.87 a month. This kind of tariff already exists in other countries and has been criticized for diminishing productivity and private sector innovation. According to a recent report by the U.S.-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, these types of taxes and tariffs come in different forms and are usually imposed by poor countries interested in building their domestic information and communication technology (ITC) industries. The U.S. and the EU have very low charges; the only European country with significant ITC fees is Greece.
Yet the main purpose of Hungary’s proposed tax — which its critics say the government has backed away from but not yet abandoned — was to further consolidate Orban’s virtually complete hold on power and keep the beleaguered opposition marginalized. Given the government’s moves against independent media, with all but a handful of outlets eliminated, the Internet has become vital to Hungarians critical of their government. The tax would have hurt lower-income Hungarians and foreign providers operating in Hungary the most.
Amy Brouillette, an American who is the director of the European Media Project at the Central European University in Budapest, says Orban has long been using taxes and other charges as tools to control the media. “It’s not new but part and parcel of his drive to push private and foreign operators out of the market,” she told me. “It would be very dangerous — the creation of a digital iron curtain around Hungary.” Though she says it’s notable that he withdrew the bill in response to public outcry, she’s not convinced that this is the last Hungary has heard about the initiative and considers it merely a strategic retreat.
The demonstrations come in a year that has delivered the Fidesz leadership triumphs and, as of late, some stinging setbacks. In all three elections held this year — national, EU and local — Fidesz has further entrenched itself in power, with no significant opposition force rising to challenge it. In the spring parliamentary elections, Fidesz received another two-thirds supermajority, essentially allowing Orban to continue to make policy at will. In the May vote for Hungary’s representatives in the European Parliament, Fidesz captured 51 percent of the votes. Coming in second, with 16 percent, was the xenophobic, ultra-right Jobbik party, in a testament to the dismal state of political culture in the country. In local elections, Fidesz candidates won control of all county assemblies and all but one of the largest cities.
It’s a grim resume for Hungary. Since Fidesz’s return to power in 2010, no democratic opposition party, sustained movement or figure has emerged to challenge Orban or the party. He has since managed to transform Hungary from one of the most Western, progressive Central Europe states into one of the laggards in the EU — a state made for and by Fidesz and its cronies. The government has hounded the free media and passed legislation (including a new constitution) that turned the judiciary into a subservient appendage of the ruling party. Orban has even explicitly praised the virtues of “illiberal democracy,” pointing to the economic achievements of strong-arm states such as China, Russia and Turkey.
With a thumping national populism and well-targeted economic payoffs to core constituents, Orban has won over a loyal voter base made up mostly of the urban upper middle class and sections of an insecure, rural petty bourgeoisie. Employment has crept up from 2010 to 2014, though far short of the 1 million jobs he promised. Shortly before the nationwide vote this year, he introduced utility price cuts — a measure, according to analysts, that won Fidesz the votes of many of the working poor. Industry bosses, media kingpins and businesses owners all owe their success to Fidesz.
Yet 2014, despite the electoral romps, will go down as the year Fidesz pushed too far and the people rose up to say “Enough!” The Internet demonstrations come on the heels of several blows to the government. For one, the U.S. reacted to Hungarian bullying of American agribusiness firms in the country by barring several Orban government allies from the U.S., alleging that they were benefiting from corruption. The high-profile move was testimony to Washington’s mounting impatience with Hungary’s intransigence on political reforms and Orban’s friendly relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, to whom Orban is often compared. He has awakened some sleeping dogs as well — for example, riling international Jewish groups with an insensitive Holocaust memorial diminishing Hungary’s role in the genocide.
It’s no wonder the Internet demonstrations have served as a vessel for other criticisms about Orban’s and Fidesz’s leadership. “At the demonstrations I heard people complaining as much about corruption and calling for Orban’s resignation as I did about the Internet tax,” Brouillette told me.
The protests could be a turning point in Hungary, the beginning of a sustained opposition movement that will eventually weaken and oust Fidesz — although that’s not likely to happen soon. “There had been a strong sense of apathy until now,” says Kristof Szombati, the Hungarian representative of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Budapest, a German body close to the country’s Green Party. The protests galvanized people (including many youths) who hadn’t been part of the demonstrations before. “These were faces I’d never seen before at the opposition [party-led] demonstrations,” he told me. He pointed out that the protests were citizen-led, not organized or even addressed by any of the opposition parties. This grass-roots engagement is encouraging, but there’s no new party on the horizon.
On another level, though, EU commissioner Kroes’ tweets of might be just one boost Hungary receives from the outgoing EU government. For the past four years, the EU commissioner for social affairs has been the Hungarian economist Laszlo Andor, whose affinity was never for Fidesz. (He was appointed in 2010 by the socialist-led government, of which he is a leading member. Full disclosure: He is a friend of mine.) During his years in Brussels, Andor kept his head down when it came to Hungary’s domestic politics and against all odds survived. He’s an intelligent, capable, now internationally tested figure with credibility across the liberal end of the political spectrum who could make a difference if he chooses to enter the vicious fray of Hungarian domestic politics.
Orban underestimated the citizens he has treated as subjects. This isn’t entirely surprising, as most Hungarians have willingly put their faith in an authoritarian strongman who beats the nationalist drum, believing he could make things better in Hungary without their engagement. But if change is going to come, it’s not from the EU or anywhere else other than the Hungarian body politic.