Protests continue as Hungary president won't resign in plagiarism row

By bne IntelliNews April 2, 2012

Phil Cain in Budapest -

The embryonic "OccuPal" protest camp outside the Sándor Palace where Pal Schmitt, the academically-disgraced Hungarian president, resides, is a hive of comic creativity tinged with fear.

The campers did not expect to still be here. They pitched-up on the morning of March 30 thinking they would simply applaud Schmitt's resignation after his PhD was stripped from him for plagiarism the previous day. A university committee confirmed press reports arising in January that over 200 of 215 pages of his 1992 doctoral dissertation were translated word-for-word from other peoples' papers.

But when Schmitt appeared on state TV that evening, he did not resign. Instead, he argued his examiners were at fault for not noticing his dissertation's shortcomings. Unusually, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has refused to give his opinion, despite having installed Schmitt as head of state shortly after their Fidesz party won a landslide two years ago. To interfere, he said, would break the constitution he rammed through parliament earlier this year.

The closest Schmitt got to regret in his TV non-resignation speech was to pledge to have a second stab at his dissertation. "It won't take him very long using Google," the protesters joke. In a similar vein, misspelt placards stand outside some of the tents, lampooning Schmitt's reputation for poor spelling.

And the ribaldry does not stop there. "Hungary is due a new Nobel Prize for physics for showing darkness travels faster than light," says a corrugated cardboard placard newly-crafted by a middle-aged man kneeling on he presidential lawn. Meanwhile someone is busy on his mobile phone arranging the delivery of light sabres to show which side of the Force they are on.

When the palace guard changes, two protesters take up position on the other side of a rope marking the line of public access and perform the changing of placards: one saying, "Hungary is under Fidesz occupation"; the other, "Photocopier of the nation". A pair of curious German tourists come over and ask what is going on and smile knowingly, saying they "eventually" got rid of their plagiarist defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg in March.

Darker side of lightness

The light-hearted tomfoolery has a darker origin. "It wasn't this bad under the Soviet Union. People need to see the bigger picture, it's horrible," says Daniel Gardonyi, a 31-year-old veteran of the Occupy movement in London, now focused on activism in his fatherland.

Says Csaba Kallai, a passer-by for whom Hungary's formidable academic achievements figure large in his sense of national pride: "It is selfish to stay on because this is about the international respect of the country."

A man in his sixties wearing a baseball cap bearing the crest of Hungary spares some time to express his views: "Do you lot know what this place is, do you? This is the president's palace! And shave your f***ing face," he says, before unleashing a volley of anti-Semitic slurs. Two policemen make their way over from the palace and usher him away. "We don't know if he's just a weirdo or if he has been sent here?" says a protester.

Virag Kaufer, a former MP for the green party Politics Can Be Different (LMP), is writing up a list of camp rules to limit trouble with the authorities, including a prohibition on drugs, alcohol and littering. She left parliament in February after the arrival of the new constitution that she says made parliament "a show". She says crews from HTV, a TV channel loyal to Fidesz, have come to film any damage done to flowerbeds, but have refrained from interviewing any protesters.

There is some disbelief their camp is allowed to be there at all. With no right to public assembly, they can only hope the permission they were surprised to be granted on is extended beyond Tuesday, April 3. Some talk darkly of being used in some larger political game, a outcome they hope to dismiss by being seen as a movement standing outside the cut and thrust of Hungarian party politics. "These are brave people," says Kallai of the protesters - being labelled a national "traitor" can seriously harm your prospects.

April 3 could be a decisive in the campers' hope of remaining in the civic realm. The widely-despised former Socialist party prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany is scheduled to hold a rally next door, also calling for Schmitt's resignation. Is this an attempted hijack or a chance for a broader alliance? What is certain, Kaufer says, is that the far-right Jobbik party will turn up too, as they always do to goad Gyurcsany. To confuse matters, Jobbik is also openly in favour of Schmitt's resignation. There is even disquiet within Fidesz.

So, how will the campers respond to the April 3 unlikely rendezvous? "We will convene a meeting of protesters to decide how to react," says Kaufer. Whatever the outcome of the debate the camp will physically be in the middle of bitterly-opposed political forces with a less well-developed sense of humour.

Protests continue as Hungary president won't resign in plagiarism row

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