Dissatisfaction peaks with internet tax

Protest in Budapest against internet tax
Teaser Image Caption
Protesters in front of the parliament in Budapest, 28 October 2014

The year 2014 was supposed to be a year of success stories for Fidesz in Hungary. But demonstrations against the internet tax have become a channel through which the people have been able to express their dissatisfaction.

The governing party easily won all three elections, most recently the municipal elections, where it garnered six times as many mayoralties as all the other parties combined. Fidesz is basically the winner of 2014, but end-of-year protests organised in opposition to the introduction of an internet tax are nevertheless causing a headache for government politicians.

Introduction of the internet tax

New tax legislation for 2015 was published on 21 October, and this was where it all exploded: the government imposed a new tax on internet data traffic – at a rate of 150 HUF per gigabyte. Protests that arose in rejection of this new tax have quickly turned into the fastest-growing anti-government movement; demonstrations against the internet tax have become the channel through which crowds have been able to express their dissatisfaction.
The Facebook page that was created in connection with the demonstration against the internet tax received more than 200,000 likes in only a few days, with 40,000 people clicking “going” on the RSVP section of the Facebook event for the first protest. On Sunday, about 20,000 people appeared at the protest, and two days later more than 40,000 came out and protested in Budapest alone. Country-wide, demonstrations of up to a thousand people each were held in ten cities, and Hungarians protested in London, Warsaw and Prague as well. The demonstrators were mostly lower-middle or middle-class workers and included supporters of all the opposition parties – MSZP, Together-PM, LMP, DK, and even Jobbik – as well as non-voters who cannot support any of the active parties. These protesters were even joined by Fidesz voters who have become disillusioned with the government’s performance. The crowd consisted mostly of young and middle-aged people; about 70% of the likers of the Facebook page are under 34 years of age.

Fidesz’s first reaction after the demonstrations was to modify the bill by putting a monthly cap of 700 HUF for private users and 5,000 HUF for businesses on the total amount of tax imposed on data traffic. Later, the government attempted to rename the tax, arguing that it was not a new form of taxation but merely an extension of the existing tax on telecommunication services. Then they offered the reasoning that the tax imposed on internet providers only serves to extend EU funds for infrastructure. (This argumentation suggests an unnerving scenario for the future: as in the case of the banking system, the government might also be planning to attract new actors into the market for ISPs using public funds, and thereby assert state control over them.) Furthermore, the government has been constantly attacking the creator of the Facebook page, Balázs Gulyás, who has become the face of the demonstrations’ organisers. As Gulyás is a former member of the Socialist Party, MSZP, the government claimed that the whole movement had been organised by the Socialists. After the Sunday demonstration, where a very small part of the crowd threw keyboards and other computer parts at Fidesz headquarters, the government immediately shouted vandalism and characterised the protesters as aggressive. None of this, however, was enough to break the dynamics of the protests.

Orbán backs down

On Friday, 31 October, Viktor Orbán dropped the internet tax. In his regular morning radio interview, he said that the tax could not be introduced “in its current form” because “the debate has gone on the wrong track”. The government are planning a “national consultation” on the issue in January, and will decide later on possible taxation of extra profit from the internet. This means that plans to introduce some form of tax on internet usage are far from having been abandoned; they are merely being postponed. Viktor Orbán had to act in order to prevent the situation from escalating from a strong rejection of the internet tax into more general, explicitly anti-government protests.

Naturally, we cannot know whether the demonstrations will continue in any form, or how the situation will develop. But one thing is for sure: even if Fidesz loses some of its popularity, no opposition party is currently in a position to seize the opportunity and strengthen itself against the government. These demonstrations were not affiliated with any political party, and apparently none of the parties was able to utilise the situation and address the protesters.

The most important effect of these demonstrations could be the strengthening of a democratic culture. Since Orbán assumed office in 2010, this is the first case of civic opposition forcing him and the government to visibly and instantly back down.

More than just the internet tax

The new tax was not the only issue that brought these protesters into the streets, however. Besides signs referring to the internet tax, they were also chanting slogans like “dirty Fidesz” and “Orbán, disappear!”, and their banners were full of allusions to the plentiful corruption scandals which have embroiled the government. At the second and hitherto largest protest on Tuesday, which ended in front of the parliament, the crowd chanted “Europe, Europe” and demanded that the EU flag be reinstalled on the parliament building (it was ordered removed two years ago by the Speaker of the National Assembly, László Kövér, who just a week ago was contemplating the possibility of “backing out of the EU”).

The internet tax has quickly become synonymous with the enemies of modernisation. For the protesters, a free internet represents not only the World Wide Web itself, but also progress, a Western lifestyle, freedom of speech, a well-functioning state, civilian control and a private sphere untouched by the state.

Everything collides

What caused these protests to function better than previous demonstrations in Hungary in recent years?
Recent government decisions have slowly but surely reached the citizens, resulting in a loss of trust in the governing party. Orbán’s speech about the illiberal state , attacks against civic organisations , the extension of state control over the media (including the firing of Origo.hu’s editor-in-chief), and strengthening Russian connections are all examples of recent government actions that are no longer considered acceptable, even for many who had previously supported Fidesz.

In the wake of the municipal elections, several events collided in short succession. Fidesz, after its strong campaign to reduce overhead costs, introduced major austerity measures. Meanwhile, information was leaked about Hungarian officials and businessmen with close ties to the government being banned from the US over corruption issues. Besides these and an ongoing case which has the National Tax Authorities involved in a 1,000 billion HUF tax fraud, sporadic news about several Fidesz politicians’ secret purchases of luxury villas against a background of more taxes and austerity measures, have together resulted in growing disillusionment.

This sentiment was strengthened on the one hand by the change of television station RTL Klub’s role in the media. Since the introduction of a new tax on advertisements, the formerly mostly politically passive television channel has started broadcasting extensively about suspicious cases around the government, reaching an audience of a few million people daily. Through this coverage, scores of people who did not follow such issues before are now informed about current political developments. Previously, there was no channel (neither commercial, right-wing nor state media) that dealt with anything the least bit political.

An example of nationwide solidarity

On the other hand, the escalation of such disillusionment also needed to bridge a generation gap. With the introduction of the internet tax, the government touched upon a sensitive area among Hungary’s youth, who live their private and everyday lives partially on social media and video sharing sites. Prominent Fidesz politician János Lázár stated at a press conference that he is not an active internet user, and it is a well-known fact that Viktor Orbán himself is not computer-literate. The government made a mistake in their defence of the internet tax: by pricing data usage at 150 HUF per gigabyte and 700 HUF per month, they made this tax tangible for everyone – even for those who do not understand informatics at a high level.

International media have also contributed to the government’s weakening position. Many widely acknowledged newspapers have strongly criticised Orbán (including conservative ones that are usually much less critical of him), and the European Union’s Commissioner for Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes, has even called the internet tax “a shame for users and a shame for the Hungarian government”. Western media interpreted the planned internet tax as a violation and restriction of free speech, which entails the prospect of even more leaders and institutions putting even greater distance between themselves and Hungary’s government.

Nevertheless, the Orbán government’s greatest mistake with the internet tax was that it attempted to exert pressure on almost the whole of society, rather than focusing on smaller, isolated groups such as benefits recipients, the police, soldiers, trade unions, students and the homeless. Whereas these small and isolated groups could not defend themselves against the government’s sanctions, the internet tax would impact all social strata and groups. This is what enabled the demonstration on Tuesday, 28 October, to grow into the largest protest against the Orbán government that has ever been held.

This is what has fostered solidarity among all sorts of people, and has provided strength to continue the protests and to preserve their peaceful character. Since 2010, there had been no example of or prospect for nationwide solidarity and cooperation – no matter what was at stake – and therefore there was no chance of a larger demonstration either. Masses of people did not go out into the streets in defence of any group in society; they did not speak up against measures affecting only a few. It was only a thin stratum of society – a strongly political upper-middle class – that stepped up to protect democratic values (at protests organised by Milla, for example), and these were the biggest political demonstrations until now.

Will the protests continue?

We do not know whether the protests will stop with the internet tax or continue and expand to all the possible causes listed above. The latter depends on real enthusiasm across society, while the former is solely up to Orbán. The question is whether his statement about postponing the introduction of the internet tax and initiating a national consultation on the issue is merely a diversionary tactic, or whether in fact the plan will truly be abandoned and no tax on data traffic will be introduced. The government will probably decide on this only after a few months of waiting and observing. Orbán has also stated that the problem is not in the planned tax itself, but rather in communication. This probably implies a change in tactics, possibly involving the government going after extra profit and the internet providers instead.

But one thing is for sure: these demonstrations will have an effect. Numerous protesters have come out into the streets for the first time, enjoying their first taste of activism, while the Fidesz communication apparatus remained uncharacteristically ineffective. We cannot claim victory just yet, and we cannot know what exactly is going to change as a result of these protests, but we can expect that the next time the Fidesz government wishes to impose a similarly unfair tax on Hungary, it will be much, much harder for them to get away with it.

Translation by Zsófia Deák and Evan Mellander.