Several thousand activists protested state corruption in Budapest on Thursday during a demonstration they called "Our Nation, Our Money," the latest in a series of marches organized on social media against the government of Hungary's populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Carrying placards that said "You Lying Rat, 4 Million in Poverty" and "Viktator," or signs depicting the ruling Fidesz party as the Death Star, the demonstrators marched from the Hungarian Parliament to the Buda Castle District. The choice was not made at random — Orbán will soon turf out the National Gallery and National Széchenyi Library from the Buda Palace building, to make way for his Prime Minister's Office.
Activist Gábor Vágó told the crowd "our government got rich very quickly, while most people got poorer very quickly." He said that Orbán will eliminate long-established cultural institutions, spending hundreds of millions in taxpayer money in the process.
The former green party parliament member (MP), who has emerged as a central figure in Hungary's "winter of discontent," had spent the week in negotiations with the "eight or so" groups who have organized a series of anti-government demonstrations since October.
Vágó told VICE News that aspiring speakers had been invited to register to test their rhetorical skills onstage "because we wanted to open the stage to the people, and not keep it as a privilege only accessible to organizers.
The biggest hit was likely former fire-fighter Tamás Paul, who called for unity against corruption across ethnic and political divides. He said he is one of millions of ordinary Hungarians facing difficult financial challenges as a result of ballooning state corruption.
"I have no problem either with the EU or with the Szekler flag hanging on the parliament," he told the crowd, referring to Székely, a former area of Hungary that was given to Romania after WWII. I am Tamás, and I do not care who is Jewish, who is Gypsy, or Hungarian… all I care about is the truth."
Pensioner Sándor Szabó protested the government's appropriation of his one million forint — Hungary's currency — compulsory private pension fund. Fidesz has grabbed 2.7 trillion forints from these private pension funds to plug budget gaps since coming to power in 2010.
Ottó Farkas, a man in his twenties, said he has returned to Hungary after five years in England because he "feels he is needed here now." He called for the crowd to realize that "Hungary is not the victim of a Western conspiracy," saying the country's real problems are the background deals of Hungarian oligarchs.
The identity of the final speaker was a reminder that Hungarian corruption did not begin with Orbán's re-election in 2010. Tibor Karancsi, a former police officer who exposed Hungary's oil smuggling mafia in the late 1990s, called for a petition to hold the offenders accountable. He also urged the opening of the oil corruption files, which were classified for 85 years during Orbán's first spell in power from 1998 until 2002.
The march came a week after a number of activists were targeted for past offenses by a government-friendly television station, HirTV, which had inexplicably obtained their confidential police records.
HirTV's targets included a report on social media pioneer Zsolt Várady had been arrested for possession of marijuana in 2003 and that internet-tax protest organizer Balázs Gulyás had been involved in car accident. HirTV also ran reports on the multiple arrests of activist Kinga Kalocsai. She responded by posting details of these on Facebook, noting that they all had taken place at demos against the Fidesz government.
This is not the first time the Hungarian authorities have been accused of leaking confidential documents to the media. According to Vago, the "black campaigning is not a good weapon against everyday people or protesters." He also called the HirTV reports "counter-productive." They may even have had a galvanizing effect on the opposition groups who have been working together after negotiations were held earlier in the week, he told VICE.
The demonstration also came the same week that US Senator John McCain questioned whether television soap opera producer Colleen Bell was suited for the role of US ambassador to Hungary. Stepping into the role of ambassador, Bell will follow in the footsteps of President George W. Bush's cousin, as well as the president's former college girlfriend.
"I am not against political appointees," McCain said on the senate floor on Tuesday. "Here we are, a nation on the verge of ceding its sovereignty to a neo-fascist dictator, getting in bed with Vladimir Putin, and we're going to send the producer of The Bold and The Beautiful as our ambassador."