By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Budapest
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)– At least 100,000 Hungarians, many of them arriving from the countryside and neighboring nations, marched for Hungary’s center-right government and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán Saturday, January 21, in what the opposition compared to a rally in North Korea.
The “Peace March for Hungary” in Budapest came just days after the European Union condemned perceived autocratic laws introduced by the Orbán administration, saying they threaten the independence of the central bank, judiciary, and the data protection office and violate EU regulations.
Hungary’s Ministry of Interior estimated crowds as high as 400,000, making it the largest pro-government demonstration since the collapse of Communism in 1989, but Western reporters and several Hungarian media outlets reported lower figures.
Thousands carried Hungarian flags, sang patriotic songs and chanted slogans in support of the prime minister and some carried his picture. A huge banner was unveiled saying “we don’t want to be a colony” a reference to Orbán’s previous suggestions that Hungary’s sovereignty is threatened by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and demands from the European Union.
Organizers of the rally, billionaire Gábor Széles , news magazine editor András Bencsik and others said the rally was to show Hungary would not bow to the West.
“We won’t be a dominion, we don’t want to be a colony,” Bencsik told the crowd. “This is our message to those abroad. “The other is we fully support Viktor Orban, and we are proud of what we achieved at the 2010 elections.”
Yet, with Hungary seeking as much as $26 billion dollars in financial assistance from the IMF and EU to pay its bills, Orbán struck a more consolatory tone Friday, January 20. He said his government was ready to change laws “because the weight of the issues is not significant” and that he “would like to reduce the conflicts between Hungary, the EU and the Commission…”
However José Manuel Barroso, president of the Commission, cautioned that “Beyond the legal aspects, some concerns have been expressed regarding the quality of democracy in Hungary, its political culture, the relations between government and opposition, and between the state and the civil society.”
Facing Orbán during a debate at the European Parliament in Strasbourg this week, Barroso added: “The issues at stake here may go beyond the European Union law matters that have been raised. These other issues should also be addressed.”
They also include concerns over a perceived crackdown on media and the limiting of recognized churches and religions to just 14, effectively outlawing hundreds of other groups, including several evangelical churches.
“VICTORY OUR MAN”
Those taking part in Saturday’s rally strongly disagreed with the international outcry, shouting “Viktor is our man” and “Justice for Hungary!”
One sign compared Hungary’s long history with the relatively young age of its critics: “EU, 55; IMF, 67; U.S., 236; Hungary 1,116.”
“There was an attack on Hungary, but we stood up against the world,” said an artist who welcomed protesters at Budapest’s Heroes Square, the starting point of the nearly four-kilometer (2.5-mile) march to Hungary’s Neo-Gothic parliament building.
Opinion polls show over eight out of ten Hungarians say the country is heading towards the wrong direction, but with a fragmented opposition, Orbán’s center-right Fidesz party has support of some 1.5 million voters in this country of 10 million people.
Pollsters also suggest that Fidesz lost nearly half of its voters. Analysts say Orbán may try reach out to voters now supporting the far right Movement for A Better Hungary (Jobbik), the second opposition party here.
Last week Jobbik held a rally in front of the European Commission offices in Budapest where, after several attempts, Jobbik officials managed to torch an EU flag.
Prime Minister Orbán turned down a request to speak at the pro-government rally, with a spokesman saying this would not be appropriate as “this will be a civil event.”
His decision, however, came amid controversy. Earlier this month, an official of Hungary’s opposition Socialist Party, Tibor Szanyi, asked the government whether reports are true that Fidesz would organize a mass rally in favor of Orbán “North Korean style”.
(BosNewsLife’s NEWS WATCH is a regular look at key news developments from especially but not limited to (former) Communist nations and other (former) autocratic countries, impacting the Church and/or compassionate professionals. Hungary is also where BosNewsLife is based).