Political clashes mark Hungarian holiday

By bne IntelliNews March 16, 2016

Government opponents and supporters clashed in Hungary on March 15, as protestors against Prime Minister Viktor Orban sought to turn the spotlight onto problems in the education and health sectors. Meanwhile the premier returned to his favoured topic: bashing the EU over the migrant crisis.

The protestors appear inspired by events next door in Slovakia, and hope to weaken support for Orban's Fidesz government by pushing problems in health and education into the spotlight. However, while the issue clearly has the potential to gain traction, Hungary is not scheduled to hold any major election until 2018.

More than 10,000 turned out on a rainy day in Budapest to protest against education reforms on the second day of a 48-hour national holiday. It was the biggest demonstration against Orban since 2014, claims Reuters, when mass demonstrations forced Fidesz to back down on plans to tax internet use.

Healthcare workers reportedly joined the crowd, which also included civic groups and opposition figures. There were minor clashes and some arrests as the demonstrators were confronted by government supporters.

Two other protests have taken place this year over the reform, which unions say overburden teachers and restrict textbooks. The cause has attracted a wide array of opponents to Orban's authoritarian government, however, which critics accuse of using its constitutional majority to push back democracy.

Opponents have seen the impact of health and education protests across the country's northern border. In Slovakia, populist Prime Minister Robert Fico ran a recent campaign echoing Orban's focus on immigration. However, despite signs of rising support in recent months, Fico's Smer party slumped in March 5 elections, and is now having to scrape together a broad coalition to cling onto power.

The focus on migrants, meanwhile, ushered a pair of far right parties into parliament in Bratislava. Fidesz' closest opposition is the far right Jobbik.

The rise of the right in Hungary pushed the PM into the immigration debate early in 2015, before the migrant crisis hit the headlines in the late spring. The hardening of the stance of other EU states has led Orban to grow in confidence and feel that he strides a larger stage than just Hungary, analysts tell bne IntelliNews.

The teacher's protests appear to be a real threat, and polls suggest they have hit Fidesz support.  The PM –  a past master at playing to the gallery at home – therefore returned to his favourite theme of EU bashing, which he has found usually goes down especially well.

He used his speech on the anniversary of a 19th century revolt against the Hapsburgs to try to push the migrant issue back onto the front pages. The PM claimed Brussels' efforts to accept migrants from trouble spots such as Syria and Afghanistan is a wider plot to build a "United States of Europe" and suppress nation states.

"We cannot let Brussels put itself above the law," Orban demanded. "We will not import crime, terrorism, homophobia and a brand of anti-Semitism that sets synagogues ablaze ... there will be no outlaw districts, no riots and no gangs hunting for our wives and daughters."

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