Jan. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Tens of thousands of Hungarians joined a protest to support Prime Minister Viktor Orban as the European Union pressed the country’s government to change laws that have blocked talks on an international bailout.
Demonstrators marched through the center of Budapest to parliament yesterday in an event organized by a group including Zsolt Bayer, a journalist with Magyar Hirlap newspaper and a founding member of Orban’s Fidesz party. The Interior Ministry said almost 400,000 people attended, while news website Index estimated the turnout at more than 100,000.
“We say yes to Europe but no to what Europe is doing to Hungary and the Hungarian government,” Bayer said in a video message posted on the Internet before the rally. Organizers marching at the front of the crowd carried a banner saying “We won’t become a colony,” a slogan Bayer repeated outside Hungary’s neo-gothic parliament.
Orban is trying to revive bailout negotiations with the bloc and the International Monetary Fund after discussions broke down in December over his refusal to change laws that both institutions said may weaken monetary-policy independence. Orban offered to change disputed legislation after the EU threatened a lawsuit against Hungary for encroaching on the central bank’s independence and political meddling with the judiciary and the data-protection authority.
The demonstration was the largest mass event of its kind since the collapse of communism more than 20 years ago, news website Nol.hu said.
“Such a big crowd hasn’t demonstrated in favor of the government and its policies in living memory,” the Interior Ministry said in an e-mailed statement yesterday, adding that the event was “peaceful” and had a “good atmosphere.”
Hungary has become a test case for the European Commission, which has pledged to use its powers to enforce the 27-nation bloc’s norms. Orban faced several hours of criticism from lawmakers at the European Parliament in the past week.
Yesterday’s pro-government rally will help support Hungarian members of the European Parliament in their defense of the country against “offensive and groundless” accusations, MEPs from Orban’s party said in a statement today.
Orban gained a two-thirds parliamentary majority in the 2010 election, which he used to pass a new constitution as the culmination of his so-called ballot-box revolution.
Orban’s governing party, Fidesz, lost support this month as the number of undecided voters swelled, polling agency Szonda Ipsos said on Jan. 13.
Backing for Fidesz among eligible voters fell to 16 percent from 18 percent in December, reaching the lowest since records started in 1998, the Budapest-based pollster Szonda Ipsos said.
The Socialist Party’s support was unchanged at 11 percent, compared with a 1 percentage point decline to 9 percent for the radical nationalist Jobbik, it said. The number of undecided voters rose to 57 percent from 54 percent. Among committed voters, Fidesz polled 39 percent, the Socialists improved to 26 percent from 24 percent and Jobbik weakened to 22 percent from 24 percent.
“Those who are dissatisfied are in the majority in Hungary, not those backing the government,” Attila Mesterhazy, president of the Socialist Party, wrote in an e-mailed statement today. “Even if the government mobilizes tens of thousands of people, it only shows it’s afraid.”
The Jan. 3-10 poll of 1,500 Hungarians had a 2.5 percentage point margin of error. The next general election is scheduled for 2014.
A demonstration on Jan. 2 against Orban’s new constitution also attracted tens of thousands of participants.
Supporters of opposition station Klubradio, which will have its frequency taken away according to a decision last month by Hungary’s media watchdog, planned a rally for today to defend the right to free speech, according to the radio’s website.
--Editors: Francis Harris, Balazs Penz
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