BUDAPEST — The warm sun balanced just above the jagged Buda Hills as hundreds of thousands of Hungarians spilled into the streets of Budapest to commemorate Revolution Day, an annual celebration honoring the country's 1848 uprising when Magyar nationalists fought for independence from the Habsburgs. Yet, the postcard-perfect backdrop stood in stark contrast to the widening political split between the government and growing opposition movements, each of which staged their own competing demonstrations -- at precisely the same times -- just far enough from the other to prevent the din of their rallying cries from overlapping.
Boulevards were emptied of cars as the city transformed into a patchwork of fervent and sometimes volatile protests. In front of the neo-Gothic parliament building, skirting the edge of the Danube River, was the pro-government rally featuring headliner Prime Minister Viktor Orban. A mile south of Parliament, past a boardwalk lined with tables of foot-long pretzels doused in sugar, and perched at the foot of the chalk-white Elisabeth Bridge, was the main opposition's demonstration run by the civic group "Milla" (which stands for "One Million for Press Freedom in Hungary"). And in the center of one of the city's main intersections, the radical, far-right Jobbik Party set up a small stage flanked by a 12-foot high television screen.
Preaching to a clogged square of roughly 100,000 supporters, Orban warned the European Union that Hungary would not tolerate interference on any level. Since sweeping into office in 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's center-right Fidesz party, which has a two-thirds super-majority, has locked horns with critics at home and abroad -- including the European Union, International Monetary Fund, and even the U.S. State Department -- over swipes at media freedoms, an overhauled constitution, the economy and judiciary reforms. It's become something of a bête noire for the international media, alarmed that something awry is happening in this small, landlocked country of 10 million. "We will not be a colony, we will be slaves no longer," said Orban, referencing a passage from a poem written by Hungarian poet and revolutionary, Sandor Petofi, amid chants of his name and repeated bursts of applause. "We do not need the unsolicited assistance of foreigners wanting to guide our hands."
His fiery rhetoric came on the heels of an unprecedented decision from the European Commission (EC) to withhold 495 million euros of aid, unless steps are taken by Hungary to lower its deficit. The punitive measure was softened slightly by an addendum stating funds could be reinstated by as early as June should the country's budget policies align with EU stipulations.
News of the EC announcement made no dent in the prime minister's appeal to 75-year old Tamas Buranyi, who attended the March 15 rally with a Hungarian flag fastened to his lapel and another in his hand. "In this extremely difficult time, Fidesz is doing what is best for the country," he said. Interweaving between the crowds were several hundred right-leaning Polish citizens who had traveled to Budapest for the holiday as a show of support to Orban and his policies. "The criticism against his personality," Buranyi added, "[It] makes it very difficult to govern the country properly."