Internet tax protests in Hungary- a true victory?

Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party’s plan to extend the existing telecommunications tax to Internet usage recently have provoke the biggest anti-government protests of the past four years. With the plans announced on the 21 October, the Facebook page ‘Szazezren az internet ado ellen’ (Hundred Thousand Against the Internet Tax) organised their first demonstration on the 26th, followed by a second one on the 28th, both mobilising tens of thousands of people. And the scale of the protests is not the only factor that made them unique—the government’s response to them was unprecedented as well. On the 31 October, Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared that the “tax in its current form cannot be introduced.”[1] At first glance, this turn of events marks a victory for the crowds and acts as the first example of Fidesz having to back down on a plan because of the extent of public discontent it caused. However, these protests were about more than a tax proposal; they unified people against the government in general, with many of the marchers throwing old computers at Fidesz’ headquarters at the end of the first protest. The question that remains is whether or not this unity can be preserved. With Hungary’s opposition in disarray and Fidesz enjoying solid support for the last four years, can these events show the emergence of a new, anti-government power?

Image courtesy of European People's Party © 2014, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of European People’s Party © 2014, some rights reserved.

There are several reasons why the proposed bill could unite so many Hungarians across social and generational groups, starting with the far-reaching consequences the tax would have had. The government initially set the tax to be 150FT (£0.40) per gigabyte of Internet traffic, later introducing a cap of 700FT/month for home users and 5000FT/month for business users. They emphasised that Internet service providers, rather than subscribers, were to pay the tax according to the bill. It is not hard to see the flaws in this argument, however; service providers themselves said that they would directly be passing the losses caused by the tax onto their customers.[2] Ironically, the Prime Minister declared that the revenues from the new tax would enable “every household to have Internet access by 2018”[3], disregarding the fact that the primary issue is not the possibility of, but rather the demand for Internet. Given the price of the service, people living in more deprived regions are already unable to pay for it and even a small increase in the cost would worsen their situation. The effects are unavoidable: taxing the internet means limiting access to a central tool of education, commerce and information in general, ultimately putting the brakes on the country’s growth in the long term.

Threatening access to a symbol of western values and development largely contributed to the general discontent, and resulted in the participation of those who might not have been affected by a price increase. Although it is easy to understand the reasons behind the extent of mobilisation, it remains remarkable that the scandals of the past years, while comparable in scale, never managed to unite such a large crowd. Focussing only on the past few months, Barack Obama listed Hungary together with Egypt, Venezuela, Russia, China and Azerbaijan as countries where civil society is in danger, referring to the government’s investigation of foreign-funded NGOs. Viktor Orban claimed that these organisations, receiving money from the Norwegian Civil Fund, were acting as “foreign agents”[4], while the NGOs denied any wrongdoing, stating that Fidesz’ goal is only to muzzle them. Another area of confrontation between Washington and Budapest was the recent diplomatic scandal, including the ban of six Hungarian state officials and businessmen from the United States, due to allegations of corruption. The list of the officials includes the head of the tax authority, Ildiko Vida, and several of her colleagues. According to U.S. Charge d’Affaires André Goodfriend, corruption was a symptom of the weakening of Hungary’s democratic institutions and called the ban a warning to Budapest.[5] These facts, coupled with Mr. Orban’s declaration in a speech in July, calling for the building of an “illiberal democracy” following the lead of countries such as Russia and China as ideal systems, raised concerns in many Hungarians in the opposition.

However, none of these government actions in themselves could create the upheaval that the plan of the Internet tax did. By shelving the tax, Viktor Orban achieved a double goal; first, he showed his critics that he can be more flexible than they had assumed. “We are not Communists. We don’t go against the will of the people”, he claimed, after cancelling the tax, aiming to show that the comparisons between Fidesz and the old Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party have no legitimacy.[6] Secondly, he also deprived his opponents of a valuable unifying cause. While keeping the option of another protest against the tax (in case its idea is considered by the government again), the leaders of the first demonstrations are trying to find new themes that would be able to mobilise the same amount of people. Another protest, demanding the dismissal of Ildiko Vida (who refuses to step down, denying all charges of corruption), was already held on the 9 November and managed to get at least five thousand people on the streets.[7] At this event, the organisers talked about the necessity of creating a new power in the opposition, which would one day be able to govern the country. The ambition to establish a movement on the left is clear – whether this will be able to maintain its current force and perhaps form into a party remains the question for the future.