Hungary’s Anti-Corruption Protests

Hungary’s Anti-Corruption Protests

Dr. Muhammad Akram Zaheer

A couple of weeks ago, the mass demonstrations in Budapest where protesters expressed their resentment against alleged financial corruption that they believed was rampant in the country and possibly facilitated or ignored by the government. These protests were immense, peaking at a reported 100,000 participants. Since then, there have been four or five more demonstrations, including some in mid-sized towns where Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s ruling party enjoys significant support. This reminded me of the large uprisings in other countries, such as the 1968 demonstrations in France that ultimately forced Charles de Gaulle from office when security forces could not suppress the movement. In Budapest, the protesters appeared to be predominantly anti-Orban, and the police seemed focused on maintaining peace rather than forcibly removing the demonstrators. Initially, I perceived this as a sign that Orban’s grip on power was weakening, given the apparent lack of strong resistance from his side. However, I must admit that I was mistaken in my assessment. I failed to recognize the fundamental differences between the context of Budapest in 2024 and Paris in 1968.

At a demonstration near Kossuth Lajos Square in downtown Budapest, Magyar told the crowd that he had shared a recording with investigators and urged them to demand justice and an investigation into the Schadl-Volner case, a major corruption scandal in Hungary. Thousands of people waved Hungarian flags and reacted loudly as Magyar read a statement accusing senior officials from the ruling Fidesz party of corruption due to their long hold on power. The crowd chanted, “Jail them! Jail them!” in response. Since 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the Fidesz party have dominated Hungarian politics, using their supermajority to change election rules, control the judiciary, limit independent media, and weaken the role of political opponents.

Magyar publicly broke with Fidesz after a scandal involving a pardon led to the resignation of Hungarian President Katalin Novak and caused Magyar’s estranged ex-wife, former Justice Minister JuditVarga, to withdraw from politics. Varga, who had planned to lead Fidesz in the upcoming European Parliamentary elections, claimed that Magyar’s recording was forced and part of a long-standing scheme to blackmail her, and she accused him of abusing her during their marriage. Magyar has consistently denied these accusations. On March 26, Magyar spent several hours at the Prosecutor-General’s Office and stated that the recording implicates officials in several crimes. He also mentioned that he possesses many more recordings related to the Schadl-Volner case and intends to share them with investigators. The Schadl-Volner case involves possible illegal activities by GyorgySchadl, the head of the chamber of judicial officers, and a former state secretary at the Justice Ministry, Pal Volner, and reportedly includes wiretaps and classified information.

Magyar believes that prosecutors have no other choice but to summon several government members as witnesses and insists that they must summon the prime minister as well. He argues that Prime Minister Orban is aware of much more wrongdoing than Magyar and his ex-wife knew. Magyar has accused Antal Rogan, a loyalist of Orban who manages the prime minister’s cabinet office and government messaging, of having significant influence within a corrupt political group. Fidesz officials have dismissed Magyar’s accusations as baseless and an attempt to harass his ex-wife. Magyar has called for a major rally in Budapest on April 6, hoping it will be the largest demonstration in the last 14 years to push for change. His previous call for an anti-government protest on March 15, a national holiday, drew an estimated 35,000 people, where he announced his intention to start a new political party. This rally followed significant anti-government protests in February, sparked by a controversial presidential pardon granted to a man convicted of helping cover up sexual abuse at a children’s home.

The Hungarian political landscape, shaped by Fidesz’s decade-long supremacy and its strategic alterations to the political system, remains resistant to immediate upheaval. However, the sustained public demonstrations and the mounting pressure from figures like Magyar indicate a brewing discontent that could eventually lead to significant shifts in Hungary’s political dynamics. While the immediate future may not mirror the swift changes seen in 1968 France, the persistent and organized efforts of the Hungarian opposition could pave the way for a gradual transformation in the country’s governance.