The Story of the "Hungarian Orange"

The Story of the "Hungarian Orange"

The "Hungarian Orange" in action.
Foto: Artúr van Balen

November 23, 2012
Artúr van Balen

"Don't go. They will beat you. You can't achieve anything anyway." These were the comments of my mother, when I explained to her that I wanted to join the opposition protests in Budapest organized on the 23rd of October by the One Million for the Freedom of the Hungarian Press Movement (Milla). As a Hungarian living in Berlin I feel this resigned attitude is characteristic of a general atmosphere in Hungary. There is a general distrust towards politics, a burden from communist times, fuelled by more recent events. In 2006 a closed-door speech by Ferencs Gyurcsány, Prime Minister and head of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) at the time, revealed that they had falsified the country's economic data to win the elections. The reactions were riots and a majority vote for the conservative right-wing party Fidesz, which now governs the country. The results we have heard in the media: measures aimed at establishing indirect control over the media and the economy [1], centralizing power, reinforcing social hierarchies, and strong nationalist propaganda (directed notably against the EU) to divert attention from anti-democratic policies.

Norbert Pálfi, one of the organisers of the Milla demonstration told me: "The two days in the year that people go on the streets are national holidays. The 23rd of October, the day the revolution of 1956 began and the 15th of March, commemorating the revolution of 1848. If you organise a protest on any other date, chances are that only a few people will show up." This 23rd of October was not only significant because of this, but because the government and the fragmented opposition were engaged in a “war of numbers” [2] aimed at showing who could mobilize a larger crowd and because Milla had announced that it would invite the country’s previous Prime Minister, Gordon Bajnai to come on stage. The far right party Jobbik also organized a demonstration in central Budapest, but this did not draw nearly as much attention as the other two. The commemoration of the Greens (Lehet Más a Politika) – held in the cemetary where the revolution’s martyrs were buried – went largely unnoticed.

I travelled from Berlin to Budapest to lead a workshop introducing activists into the art of inflatables designed to support protests. The idea of inflatables emerged from an art-activist group I co-founded called the "eclectic electric collective." [3] With the group we explore different forms of art-activism and are currently experimenting with the use of inflatables as an empowering tool for protests. We see inflatables as an element of  playfulness and interactivity that can attract media attention, providing messages of dissent and collective creativity greater visibility.

"A bit more yellow, a bit more savoury"

It was in the workshop that the idea of the "Hungarian Orange" came up. The term refers to an attempt in communist times to cultivate oranges in Hungary. As the climate is not suitable for subtropical fruits the mission failed. Importantly, the attempt was parodied in Péter Bacsó’s famous movie: “The Witness” (1969). In one of the scenes we see a party leader visit the co-operative where scientists experiment with orange-growing and learn that the comrade would like to taste an orange. As the only ripe orange is accidentally eaten, he is given a lemon instead, accompanied by the following explanation: "Its' the new Hungarian orange, a bit more yellow, a bit more savoury, but it's ours." It is thanks to Bacsó’s movie that the “Hungarian orange” became a symbol for expressing the gap between the sweet party propaganda and the daily sour reality of socialist life. The symbol was recycled by then liberal-alternative Fidesz in the early 90s. The party’s weekly paper was baptised “Hungarian orange” (Magyar Narancs [4]) and Fidesz adopted an orange circle as its logo.

We decided that it was time to revive the "Hungarian Orange" as a visual meme. With the help of around 15 artists and activists we created a 5 meter long, 3.5 meter high inflatable lemon, which we brought to Kossuth Square where the “Peace march” organized in support of Fidesz ended and where Viktor Orbán gave his speech. Our idea was that when the TV cameras film the crowd (to show how gigantic the support for the government is and how little the support for the opposition) the giant inflatable lemon would also make an appearance. Unfortunately, this plan did not work. Having entered the crowd 500 meters before the square, the “peace-marchers”, who consisted mainly of retired people, asked us what this object was about. "It’s a Hungarian orange" – we said. It took them about a minute to digest the meaning of our inflatable at the end of which an older man shouted that we are from the oppositional newspaper “Hungarian Orange”. A chain reaction followed: "Go to Milla", one screamed. "Go to Gyurcsány-father [5]", another screamed. "Takarodjatok!"(get lost) they yelled in unison. Some older men tore the inflatable, ripped off the valves and tried to peek through the foil. We knew that the Fidesz-supporters would not like our inflatable lemon, but the intensity of the reactions surprised us.

Having escaped the “Peace march” by running into a side alley we repaired the damaged lemon and only arrived for the closing words of the Milla-demonstration. The national anthem was played. In an almost sacred procession we waded through the crowd, holding a limp Hungarian orange above our shoulders. We were gretted by surprised but smiling faces. After the anthem, the inflatable was joyfully tossed around in the crowd. 

Experiencing the 23rd of October in Budapest showed me how emotionally polarised and divided Hungary is at the moment. On the one side you have Fidesz supporters, many of whom were brought in by busses from all over the country. Their number was placed between 400.000 and 150.000. Viktor Orbán's central message to the crowd is that they won't let Hungary be governed by foreigners and that there is just one way forward.

Then you have Jobbik and its supporters who are relatively few in Budapest, but well visible outside the capital city as they had a parallel rally in Gyöngyöspata. The far right party’s strategy is largely aimed at overtaking Fidesz from the right. That’s why you could hear its leaders reeling against the government claiming that Orbán is only feigning to act against foreign interests and its followers shouting "Orbán is a Gypsy!" during their march.

Change can happen only by understanding the past

The protesters gathered at Milla’s demonstration, estimated between 40.000 and 70.000, were mostly there to hear Gordon Bajnai speak. During the protest he, together with Péter Juhász from Milla launched “Together 2014”, a coalition of civic organisations aiming to defeat Orbán at the next elections in 2014. Bajnai, a former prime minister backed by a weakened Socialist Party during his short tenure (2009-2010), but now without party association, spoke about Hungary being at a turning point. According to him the country does not only need a change of government, but a change of regime and political culture. What kind of change Bajnai envisions one can only guess from his background as an entrepreneur and his leading role in introducing harsh and efficient austerity measures during his premiership. Despite these unpopular measures some people appear to have good memories of him and his emotional speech gave hope to the disenchanted.

Hope and political participation is needed now more than ever, as a week after the protests a new amendment was passed for voter registration. The measure clearly aims at creating administrative obstacles to political participation. Oppositional parties fear that this move will help Fidesz secure its election victory, as those social groups with low interest in politics may end up not registering and thereby unable to participate at the election.[6]

Reading the press about Hungary I realised that foreign media often tend to give somewhat one-dimensional news reports. They mostly stress that Fidesz’ is attempting to cement its power by undemocratic means. While this is certainly true what is left out from this picture is an explanation of how Fidesz could secure a two-thirds majority by democratic means in the first place. There is very little talk of the corrupt, at times aurhoritarian measures introduced by earlier Socialist governments, which gradually eroded public confidence in democratic institutions and democratic politics as such. Just think of the moral and political consequences of: a Prime Minister (who happens to be Bajnai’s earlier business partner) lying about the state of the economy in order to win the elections and refusing to resign despite clear evidence of misconduct and the brutal repression of protesters.

When you plan the future you simply cannot forego thinking about the past, especially in this country. This is why far from everyone who opposes the current government was happy with Milla’s decision to invite Bajnai on stage, let alone joining forces with him. Although the former Prime Minister is not a member of the Socialist Party he does not rule out working together with the party. The problem for Milla is that by joining this new alliance so hastily it severely undermined its former strategy, which was aimed at building a new political culture in Hungary – one built on the principles of truth and justice, as well as the methods of critical engagment with the past and citizens’ participation. If Milla and "Together 2014" want to succeed, they will need to demonstrate in very practical terms their commitment to these principles and methods. If they don’t accomplish this, nothing will distinguish them from the parties of the past.

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Footnotes:

[1]  Centralization and the capitalist market economy, János Kornai, 01.02.2012 Népszabadság online

[2]  See for more on the "war of numbers"

[4]  In the meantime the weekly has become one of Fidesz’ staunchest critics. Their website can be accessed here: www.magyarnarancs.hu

[5]  Ferenc Gyurcsány was the head of the Socialist government until 2009 (when he was forced to resign due to the collapse of the country’s budget). He is one of the most hated politicians in Hungary who has become a symbol of corruption and bad governance.

Video: The Story of the "Hungarian Orange"

Dossier: Focus on Hungary

The Heinrich Böll Foundation has compiled a dossier containing articles and interviews on the situation in Hungary since the right wing government came to power in April 2010. The driving goal behind the project is to analyze and interpret the changes in the domain of public life at ‘half-time’, two years before the next parliamentary elections.

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