BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Buoyed by pressure from the United States, throngs of ordinary Hungarians are fighting back against Prime Minister Viktor Orban's drive to consolidate power through a perceived crackdown on civil liberties.
Since mid-October, Hungarians have waged a string of street rallies in Budapest and other cities to protest a range of alleged misdeeds by Orban, including a violation of democratic norms, suspected tolerance to corruption and an increasingly pro-Russian stance that is harming ties with the West.
U.S. criticism has played a strong supporting role, with the latest salvo coming this week from Sen. John McCain, who called Orban a "neofascist dictator." Hungary's foreign ministry on Wednesday summoned the top American diplomat in Budapest over McCain's comments. Last month Washington imposed entry bans on six Hungarian officials suspected of corruption, while both President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton have criticized Orban's authoritarian course.
Tamas Mellar, a former Orban ally who spoke at his first anti-Orban rally in late October, said the U.S. corruption allegations were a catalyst for him, giving him hope that change is possible.
"At that moment I also began to feel that we are not completely alone and that this whole issue is not hopeless," said Mellar, a onetime economic adviser to Orban who now teaches at university. "I believe many of us began to think this way and many people who had not been politically active went out to the streets."
Julia Lakatos, an analyst with the Center for Fair Political Analysis in Budapest, said she considers the protests "a tipping point."
"While the protests will not bring early elections or a change of government, they have shown that there is pent up frustration on all sides of the political spectrum," Lakatos said. This frustration, she argued, is "giving an impetus to civil society, which may eventually lead a group of activists to step into the limelight."
The rising social mood against Orban has been sparked largely by repressive measures against civil society, including laws to stifle critical journalists and constitutional protections of conservative Christian values. A defining moment in his tenure came in July, when he gave a speech saying he wants to turn Hungary into an "illiberal state" and cited Russia, China, Turkey and Singapore as successful models.
Many Hungarians are angry over Orban's apparent lurch toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, manifested by the inking of key energy deals with Moscow.
"Hungary belongs in the West," said delivery man Antal Pinter during a recent protest. "Enough already with all this winking toward Russia."
The issue that sparked the largest protests in October was a plan by Orban to impose a tax on Internet usage, a perceived violation of free speech. The show of opposition by large numbers of young middle class people in protests in October forced Orban to shelve the idea in its current form, though he says he might revisit the matter next year.
Thousands also turned out at a pair of rallies in November to protest corruption, while about 2,000 people marched on Nov. 22 to protest planned spending cuts and centralization in the educational system. The changes include plans to urge more students to leave university-track schools in favor of vocational-track programs. Orban's critics view it as another attempt to weaken civil society.
"The government does not want too many thinking people who can form an independent image of the world," said Mellar.
Except for the shift in the Internet tax, the government has not substantially addressed the criticisms.
And the government has brushed off Washington's denunciations, saying it want the U.S. to provide proof of the alleged corruption by the six banned officials so it can launch an investigation. In particular, Hungary refuses to the remove Ildiko Vida, the head of the tax office who has acknowledged being among those barred — while also denying corruption allegations.
McCain's comments Tuesday were made while unsuccessfully trying to persuade the Senate to reject President Obama's nominee to fill the vacant U.S. ambassador post in Hungary. McCain said soap opera producer Colleen Bell was "totally unqualified" for the task.
McCain, who met Orban in February, said Hungary was "on the verge of ceding its sovereignty to a neo-fascist dictator getting in bed with Vladimir Putin."
Levente Magyar, state secretary for economic diplomacy at the Foreign Ministry, said the Hungarian government rejected McCain's remarks about Orban and the relationship between Hungary and Russia, describing the senator's comments as "unacceptable."
The tensions between Orban's government and the U.S. have played out over Twitter. The U.S. Embassy's charge d'affaires, Andre Goodfriend, attended one of the protests against the Internet tax, drawing a rebuke from government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs, who criticized him for joining a rally led by the opposition liberals and Socialists and accused him of trying to influence Hungarian affairs.
Goodfriend, who was summoned Wednesday as the most senior U.S. diplomat in Budapest, said he was just trying to see what was happening in the country. He later posted a picture of himself on Twitter at an earlier pro-Orban rally, saying: "I try to see the full range of life in Hungary."
Orban, 51, won his second stint as prime minister in 2010 with a two-thirds majority in parliament that allowed him to start centralizing power. He overwhelmingly won re-election earlier this year after changing the elections laws to favor his party.
Balazs Nemes, an organizer of anti-corruption protests, said the rallies needed to "serve as an incubator so civil society can start to organize itself."
"Our desire is for a new arrangement, an inclusive, democratic and transparent political system," said the 22-year-old economics student.