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Politics

Hungary's 'Together' opposition braves the cold

Thousands protested in Budapest on Sunday against constitutional changes by the center-right government. They were also testing their new opposition alliance against Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Together 2014.

"It's a 1989 moment," says Eva Kertesz as she opens the iron barred doors leading to the rooms of Milla, the organization aiming to gather one million Facebook supporters for press freedom in Hungary. The mention of "1989" is a reference to Hungary's overthrowing of communism. Kertesz likens the current Orban government to autocratic regimes of the past which, like communism, she believes need to be overthrown.

Nor is she alone. Hungary's recent protest rally Sunday (17.03.13), which was first delayed due to a cold snap, brought a mix of human rights campaigners, anti-Orban protesters and left-wing parties to the streets of Budapest. To Hungarians, the protest was doubly symbolic. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban also began his political career as a student demonstrator against communism.

Hungarian citizens take part in a demonstartion in front of the parliament building in Budapest on December 2 , 2012 against anti-Semitism in Hungary. A Hungarian far-right deputy suggestion to compile a list of other parliament representaives 'of Jewish origin' sparked an outcry on November in Hungary, which has seen a series of anti-Semitic incidents in recent months. (Photo: ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images)

Regular demonstrations have been taking place outside Hungary's parliament in Budapest

Protestors complained that an amendment pushed through parliament last week enshrines laws previously ruled unconstitutional and allows any government with a two-thirds majority to put whatever it likes into the constitution. Orban's political party, Fidesz, currently holds 59 percent of seats in Hungary's parliament. Together with Hungary's Christian Democrats, they rule in a two-thirds majority.

While each protest group has its own pet issue - or issues - for the Milla group, the "media" is the primary message of their protests.

"The first steps of Fidesz [Orban's political party] against democracy were steps against media freedom," Milla founder Peter Juhasz told DW. "Fidesz created a media council, which it dominates, and it helps to spread propaganda. We cannot talk about independent media here."

Juhasz is a former social activist and is now one of the three leaders of a growing opposition movement known as "Together 2014."

Opposition unites

Together 2014 is made up of groups like Milla, unionists, environmentalists and human rights groups who are slowly coalescing around former Prime Minister Peter Bajnai, a technocrat who led an interim minority government in 2009 and 2010.Uniting Hungary's notoriously divided political groups against Fidesz will not be easy.

"It was a really hard and difficult decision for us," says Péter Juhász, referring to his group's move from political activism into the political mainstream. Most commentators believe there will need to be a further alliance between Socialists and Together 2014 if they are to stand any chance of winning the election.

epa03623923 Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban gives a news conference ahead of the European Council meeting at the European Council headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 14 March 2013. The Council will discuss the economic situation and outlook, as well as foreign affairs, including the EU's relations with Russia and the conflicts in Syria and Mali. EPA/THIERRY ROGE

Orban has been Hungary's prime minister since 2010

Their efforts have also been helped from abroad, with Prime Minister Orban facing a barrage of criticism from outside Hungary.

The European Commission is launching an investigation into whether the constitutional changes violate the EU's fundamental values. Individual leaders have also spoken out.

At last week's European summit German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the Commission's probe, saying, "One may not abuse a two-thirds majority, but one has to proceed very carefully with it."

Together 2014

But Prime Minister Orban says they are wrong - and that the constitutional changes conform with EU treaties.

Hungarians attend a demonstration after parliament voted for government-backed constitutional amendments, in Budapest March 11, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh)

For a truly "1989" moment, Together 2014 will have to maintain its alliance for another year

"Hungary's democratic institutions are strong enough to defend themselves," he told journalists. "We have a two-thirds majority because people trusted us."

Whether Mr Orban can command a similar majority after elections next year is increasingly doubtful. An Ipsos poll in December 2012 showed 19 percent of Hungarian's supporting his Fidesz party. His coalition partners in the far-right Jobbik party could muster only 6 percent. The opposition Socialists, still in some disarray after being swept out of power in the 2010 election, can currently count on around 16 percent of votes.

Putting further strain on Fidesz's popularity, especially among the young, is the economy, which shrank by 1.7 percent in 2012. Eleven percent of Hungarians are unemployed, with the number jumping to thirty percent for the young. International criticism has focused on government policies as a contributor to this misery.

But perhaps the biggest threat to Fidesz dominance of Hungarian politics comes from Together 2014's slowly-emerging alliance. Statistics on Together's combined electoral clout are absent, however the mix of left-wing parties, youth support and outspoken activism represent a potent challenge for Orban and his Fidesz party in 2014.

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