Márton Gulyás: “There is no other option than a nonviolent civil disobedience movement”

Márton Gulyás: “There is no other option than a nonviolent civil disobedience movement”

Interview

The political activist, Márton Gulyás, calls for a reform of the Hungarian electoral law. The government has declared him a national security risk. In this interview he talks about his reform ideas and why a movement of civil disobedience is the only option.

Márton GulyásMárton Gulyás. Creator: Gabriella Csoszó/FreeDoc. All rights reserved.

Márton Gulyás (31) is the former manager of the Krétakör Foundation[1], and co-founder of the leftist political activist group Human Platform. The Hungarian government has declared him a national security risk.[2] He is the face of Slejm, a political vlog on YouTube. Mostly known for his political performances, this spring Gulyás was arrested for throwing paint at the Hungarian presidential palace during a spontaneous protest, after President János Áder signed the amended higher education law, called “Lex CEU”, that would require the Budapest-based Central European University to close its doors should it fail to comply with certain criteria. Gulyás was held in police custody for three days, and was sentenced to 300 hours of public service work in an expedited criminal proceeding. After his release, he launched the Country for All Movement (Közös Ország Mozgalom) with the aim to draw up a new electoral law. The movement put up a special tent called Agóra in front of the Hungarian Parliament Building where they held screenings, debates and sit-ins. In October 2017, the movement and eight parliamentary and extra-parliamentary political parties[3] announced that their common proposal for electoral reform was ready. Among other things, this proposal would introduce proportional representation in the National Assembly, lower the electoral threshold from 5 percent to 4 percent, reset the electoral districts[4], implement a gender equality rule, and make campaign financing transparent.

Ákos Keller-Alánt: It was a very intense period when you launched the Country for All Movement. There had been long weeks of protests in the streets of Budapest and you had just been released from custody. What were your feelings back then?

Márton Gulyás: In jail, I started thinking about my actions. I thought thoroughly about the current situation and I felt it was the right political moment to give a vision to the people who want change. I knew that was the right moment to launch the Country for All Movement; it wasn’t a spontaneous act at all.

Why did you define the changing of the electoral system as the movement’s only goal?

Because the unjust electoral law is the very fundament of the current Hungarian regime. Its purpose is not to reflect voters’ will, but to keep the Fidesz party in power. Of course, there are major issues in the country like corruption and poverty, but the root of every problem is that currently the government cannot be held accountable. The electoral law – which was passed with a two-thirds’ majority in the National Assembly in December 2011, but without any consensus among the parties – ensures that a strong minority can and will keep Fidesz in power,[5] at least as long as the opposition remains as fragmented as it is now. Without electoral reform, it’s nearly impossible to maintain a fair democracy in Hungary. And if the opposition parties could push through our common proposition for reform, well, that would be a huge step towards real democracy.

But if you’re right, and the electoral system is so important, Fidesz would never agree to change it. And they have a majority in the National Assembly.

Of course, they won’t do it if we just ask them. This is why I declared, right at the beginning, that if our proposal doesn’t come into force before next year’s election, we’ll launch a nonviolent civil disobedience movement.

And how should we imagine this nonviolent civil disobedience movement?

I can’t tell you the details now, because the concrete action depends on the political situation at the time. But it’s clear that now there are only two ways to achieve change. The first is to pass the electoral reform and to hold next year’s elections accordingly, and the second – much harder – way is to try to win an election under the current electoral system.

To achieve the reform, we are working together with opposition parties and we are ready to launch our nonviolent civil disobedience movement. If the law doesn’t pass, the opposition parties and the citizens interested in change have to cooperate in order to prevent Fidesz from winning a majority in the National Assembly in the next election. We have to figure out how to build this coalition in an effective manner, so right now we’re preparing for both situations. A majority of Hungary’s citizens want to replace the government in 2018, but thus far they haven’t been able to find an authentic party with a strong and viable leader who could be a credible agent of change.

Maybe there’s a strong longing for change in society, but in the last seven years no one has managed to channel this force into something meaningful?

The citizens who want regime change are very diverse, and I believe this diversity is a great asset. But it also means that we have to pay attention to voters’ differing needs and interests. Therefore, the opposition parties have only one option under the current electoral law: every party has to enter the race with its own party list, so that voters can articulate their particular interests and choose a party in accordance with their values. Because of how the electoral districts for the direct mandates are set up, however, it is necessary for there to be only one opposition candidate running against the Fidesz candidate in each district. The opposition parties must channel the strong will for change by negotiating and working hard to find this one candidate in each and every district who has the best chances of defeating the Fidesz candidate.

Should the far-right Jobbik party also be part of this electoral coalition?

I’m talking about the eight parties with whom the Country for All Movement collaborated on the legislation. Right now, we’re not dealing with Jobbik, despite the fact that they are also needed in our struggle to replace the government.

But this is a contradiction.

Not necessarily.

Former Jobbik MEP György Gyula Zagyva participated in your video campaign, and other people close to Jobbik were invited to Agóra to take part in the discussion. But they didn’t work with you on the electoral legislation. These days, Jobbik is the second most popular party in Hungary after Fidesz.

Now our main task is to reach out to those people who want to replace the current government. Once we have the backing of a majority in society, we can point at this mass of people and tell the parties that these are the people whom they have to represent. And if the parties listen to them carefully, they’ll understand what they want.

Parties are the tools of change; without them, we can’t go forward. But this doesn’t mean we can’t criticise them. Jobbik is as far-right as Fidesz, but Fidesz is much more dangerous because it’s in power. Jobbik tries to copy Orbán; this is their only strategy. But without their voters there can be no new government, and therefore we need these voters. The Country for All Movement has invited Jobbik to work with us, but they declined to join our efforts, so we have no reason to deal with them. We’re working with the other eight parties and mainly with citizens who want to replace the government.

Currently, the two most popular parties in Hungary can be categorised as far-right. Couldn’t that mean that the Hungarian people don’t want to live in a liberal democracy, but prefer a strong, right-wing, authoritarian leader instead?

I don’t think so. When I travel around in the country and talk to people with very different backgrounds, what I see is that everybody wants change, and everybody says they’re willing to act. But in the end almost no one acts, because they think nothing they do will have an impact, and thus they think there’s no point in even trying. The Hungarian people were taught by their governments before and after 1989 to be silent and not to act at all, and an environment like this is very favourable to our proto-fascist regime. But once there’s a system which encourages and listens to them, a lot of creative energy will be released.

In the last six months, you’ve worked closely with representatives of eight parties. This is already a great achievement. Do you think it’s possible to maintain this collaboration?

The next step would have been a common demonstration on 23 October, but the parties opted out one by one. So now we have to find a different form of collaboration. On 18 November[6], we will hold a forum and a discussion about the issues surrounding the current electoral system and about our proposal. At this event, we would like to bring together citizens and politicians, discuss our common aims, and figure out how we can collaborate in order to achieve them. We don’t want to live another four years under the so-called “system of national collaboration”, as Fidesz likes to refer to its own regime. It’s not collaborative, it’s not national, and it’s not a system.

But how can you get the parties to collaborate?

The parties are hesitant to collaborate because each party’s primary goal is to survive and to become the only strong opposition to Fidesz, while the others disappear. In their minds, it will only be possible to unseat this proto-fascist regime once they have emerged as the sole challenger to the regime. This was their strategy in 2014 and it didn’t work. A few weeks ago, during a public debate, I asked representatives of Jobbik and LMP how many of their legislative proposals had made it at least to the debate stage in the National Assembly. Their answer was that only one had. Under the current circumstances, they’re unable to achieve any change.

The majority of Hungary’s citizens want to replace the government in 2018. They understand the significance of the elections, and the voters know that only a single united opposition force will be able to win.

This isn’t just a dream; surveys suggest that a united opposition force could beat Fidesz. And I believe the voters will be able to provoke a certain level of collaboration. So, if there’s a strong social base behind the Country for All Movement, and we can show them that there’s a real mass of citizens standing behind our initiative, then the parties will have to react to that. What we, as a movement, can do is to articulate the will to accomplish this. The only way to replace Fidesz is through broad-based collaboration.

Once Fidesz is gone, the current opposition parties can, of course, highlight their differences in views and values. It’s understandable that every one of them would like to represent their own political community, and I appreciate their work. Momentum, for example, has achieved quite a lot during a very short period of time. It’s very sad, however to see that all these efforts to distinguish themselves from the other parties will lead to just one outcome: Orbán will remain in power.

Is one election enough? Not only does the electoral law favour Fidesz, there is also the new constitution, the fact that every important position in the state administration is held by a Fidesz appointee, etc.

It’s true that Fidesz has taken over not only the government but also almost the entire state apparatus, and their allies occupy every – formerly independent – position in the state administration. That’s a huge problem, but nothing will change if Fidesz continues to have a two-thirds’ majority after 2018. Once they lose their qualified majority, Fidesz will have to negotiate on certain important legislation and certain key positions, such as that of the prosecutor general. In this case, Hungary may get a prosecutor general who does his or her job properly.

If Orbán loses his majority in the National Assembly, Hungary will have a new prime minister and Fidesz will fall apart. This is what’s at stake in next year’s elections. But we have to face the reality: unseating Orbán’s regime will take a lot of time and effort.

Is there a history of nonviolent civil disobedience movements in Hungary?

There have been some important, although not necessarily large, demonstrations in the past. The first in the history of democratic Hungary was the taxi drivers’ blockade in 1990,[7] but there have been several others even since 2010. The City is for All (A Város Mindenkié) movement organised a number of demonstrations in which their activists formed human chains to prevent evictions. And about sixty other activists occupied the Fidesz headquarters in 2013 to protest against a constitutional amendment. We are planning similar, but larger, actions.[8]

Do you think you can achieve results using such tools?

We have already tried to negotiate with the government without any success; they don’t listen to us at all. For example, I have invited Mónika Karas, head of the National Media and Infocommunications Authority, as well as Ilona Pálffy, head of the National Electoral Office, to our debates but they didn’t come. The people in power avoid every public debate and don’t respond to any criticism. They don’t serve the nation at all. This is why a nonviolent civil disobedience movement is the last tool that we can try. Of course, I can’t guarantee its success.

In recent years, Viktor Orbán has only retreated when confronted with a force that is more powerful than he is, or that could jeopardise the system he built.

All I’m saying is that there is no other option than a nonviolent civil disobedience movement. If we cannot achieve viable results with this, society will completely lose faith in the possibility of change. In this case, the result will not be apathy, but frustration and aggression. And we have to avoid this scenario at all costs.

 

The interview was conducted in November by Ákos Keller-Alánt.

 

[1] Krétakör (“Chalk Circle”) is a centre for contemporary arts and a production company, which creates creative community games and performances by using experiences of social sciences. Its artistic director, Árpád Schilling, together with Márton Gulyás, are among the three activists who have been declared a national security risk by the government recently.

[2] National Security Committee vice-president and Fidesz VP Szilárd Németh named three opposition activists during a closed-door session of the committee in September. According to Németh, the activists could each be expected to engage in subversive activities later this year, with the intention of “participating in the disruption of Hungary’s internal order.”

[3] The Socialist Party (MSZP), the Greens (LMP), Democratic Coalition (DK), Together (Együtt), Dialogue (Párbeszéd), Momentum, the Liberals (MLP), and Modern Hungary Movement (MoMa).

[4] Part of the amendment to the election law redrew the borders of election districts so that the voting tendencies favour the governing parties.

[5] Under the new electoral law, Fidesz was able to secure a two-thirds’ majority of seats in the National Assembly with less than 50 percent of the vote.

[6] The interview was conducted before 18 November.

[7] A few thousand taxi drivers blocked the main roads in Budapest and other major Hungarian cities to protest against high petrol prices. This was the first major demonstration in democratic Hungary

[8] The fourth amendment of Fidesz’s constitution, among others, reintroduced several provisions previously annulled by the Constitutional Court, criminalised homelessness, declared marriage as a relationship between two people of opposite sexes, gave the parliament the right to decide the status of the churches, etc. The amendment was criticised by the European Commission, the European Council and the U.S. government. In March 2013, after weeks of protests in Hungary, about sixty activists sat in the backyard of the Fidesz headquarters, blocking the entrances to the building. The nonviolent protest ended when security guards hired by Fidesz forcibly moved the demonstrators out to the street.

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