Twenty thousand protest Orbán’s education policies in Budapest

More than twenty thousand teachers, school administrators, students, parents and union activists took to the very rainy streets of Budapest on Saturday morning, and marched together from Jászai Mari tér, near Budapest’s Margaret Bridge, to Parliament. The mass demonstration is the largest since the series of so-called “internet protests” in 2014, when tens of thousands marched in opposition to the Orbán regime’s plans for an internet tax.

Twenty thousand protests in Kossuth square on February 13th, 2016. Photo: Tamás Kovács/MTI.

Twenty thousand protests in Kossuth square on February 13th, 2016. Photo: Tamás Kovács/MTI.

Hungary’s government would like to have you believe that today’s mass protest was about wages in the education sector and demands for an increase by teachers and school administrations. By claiming that this protest is just like any other demonstration by teachers seeking higher wages, the Orbán regime aims to “normalize” the situation in Hungary.

This narrative, however, cannot be further from the truth. The over 20,000 protesters in Kossuth Square on Saturday morning took to the streets because of the overarching centralization and authoritarianism, the one-size-fits-all approach to learning in Hungary, since Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party returned to power in 2010. The government’s policy reduces social mobility, discourages children of economically disadvantaged backgrounds from obtaining an education, treats all students as unthinking automatons, allows for no creativity or critical thinking and sees teachers as workers on an assembly line, without any autonomy.

Twenty thousand demonstrate in Budapest on February 13th, 2016, with many drawing attention to systemic corruption under the Orbán regime. Photo: János Marjai.

Twenty thousand demonstrate in Budapest on February 13th, 2016, with many drawing attention to systemic corruption under the Orbán regime. Photo: János Marjai.

The two large national teachers’ unions both participated in the protest, namely the Union of Teachers (PSZ) and the Democratic Union of Teachers (PDSZ). This cooperation is positive news, considering that the two unions were at odds about whether they should be willing to engage in dialogue with the Orbán regime. The PSZ, for instance, refused to attend round table negotiations with the regime, while PDSZ leader László Mendrey decided to participate. Mr. Mendrey conceded on Saturday at the demonstration that it was a mistake to enter into dialogue with the government.

“Mr. Orbán is the grand master of preserving his political power. He manages to systematically divide everyone,” said Mr. Mendrey, alluding to earlier divisions between the two unions. “Viktor Orbán and his friends are living in Canaan, and this is why he has to preserve the current educational system,” added Mr. Mendrey.

The leader of the other key union, PSZ, which struck a less conciliatory tone when dealing with the Orbán regime as of late, and refused to participate in any discussions, had some sharp words for the regime.

“The government’s great reform brought about a system that stripped students of the joy of learning and stripped teachers of the joy of teaching. The regime is consciously throwing into poverty an entire new generation. Our patience has run dry. We are here, so as to declare together, that enough is enough. We won’t stand idly by,” declared Mrs. István Galló, chief of the PSZ union.

PSZ union leader Mrs. István Galló at Saturday's protest in Budapest. Photo: János Marjai/MTI.

PSZ union leader Mrs. István Galló at Saturday’s protest in Budapest. Photo: János Marjai/MTI.

The protest also included speeches from students and school administrators. The principal of the Teleki Blanka High School in Budapest, István Pukli, noted that the regime is “not accustomed to people saying ‘no'” and added that the government had now entered into its most stubborn phase. Mr. Pukli demanded that the regime spend 6% of Hungary’s GDP on education, in order to address the damage that they have done over the past six years.

The most radical group involved in the protests is called the Network of the Uninvited. Activists affiliated with this group distributed thousands of flyers on Saturday declaring that there “is no longer any reason to engage in dialogue with government on any issue.” The Network calls upon Hungarians, in all fields and in all regions, to reject all dialogue with the government and its officials, and instead engage in systematic forms of civil disobedience across the country. The Network described Mr. Orbán, his ministers and leading civil servants as “barbarians.”

A small group of Hungarian-Canadians also expressed their solidarity with the protesters. On Friday, Montreal-based teacher Judit Pandur, who volunteers at the local Hungarian-language Saturday school, published an open letter, signed by 15 Hungarian Canadians involved in education, to speak up against the Orbán regime’s attempts to build a semi-feudal state in Hungary.

Meanwhile, the Orbán regime’s officials tried to downplay the protest. The newly minted state secretary in charge of education, László Palkovics, claimed that the protest “was no longer relevant,” because the government recognizes that there are concerns and officials are willing to engage in dialogue with all parties, within the context of the on-going round table on education policy. There are now also “leaks” that Mr. Orbán is willing to dismantle the much-hated Klebelsberg Institute Maintenance Centre (KLIK), which oversees all public schools in Hungary, but no earlier than in 2018.

Fortunately, a growing number of Hungarians are realizing that dialogue with the Hungarian government is counterproductive.

One of the most powerful moments of the protest was when the 20,000 demonstrators in Kossuth Square held a five-minute long period of complete silence. Virtually nobody moved and almost complete silence enveloped the crowded public square. The regime’s problems will really begin if one day the tens of thousands of protests come out to Kossuth Square and simply refuse to go home.


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