A day of generally peaceful protest has turned into a night of violent clashes between Hungarian police and nationalist groups in Budapest.
At 1am last Friday people were still walking the streets, some waving the controversial Arpad flag, seen as a symbol of Hungary’s fascist past.
Police blocked streets in the city centre and diverted traffic from the main trouble spots near Heroes Square.
The violent protests have not surprised the majority of Hungarians. A Hungarian TV news poll had 50% of respondents say trouble was certain.
All the elements were in place for the riots to happen.
Large crowds gathered early at various commemorative sites to remember the 1848 uprising against Hungary’s Habsburg rulers.
Prominent in the crowds was the Arpad flag, an ancient Magyar ensign appropriated by Hungary’s fascist movement during WWII.
At an official commemorative event on the steps of the National Museum, the crowd whistled and jeered during speeches by government officials. The most popular chant among the crowd was “Gyurcsany get out”, which would erupt and swell periodically.
Ferenc Gyurcsany is the Hungarian PM, best known for his candid revelations about lying to voters about the economy to win an election.
When Gyurcsany spoke at another event and referred to the gathered crowd as “Budapestik” (meaning people of Budapest), one woman in the crowd responded with “don’t you mean “Judapestik” – a reference to Gyurcsany’s stand against anti-Semitism, unpopular among right-wing nationalists.
Gyurcsany was pelted with eggs during his speech at March 15 Square. At one point during his speech, Gyurcsany said that anyone carrying an Arpad flag today knew nothing about Hungarian history. He said this to a crowd full of just such flags. The chants of “Gyurcsany get out” just got louder and louder.
Holocaust revisionist David Irving spoke at another rally for far-right nationalists.
The biggest winner of the day, though, is likely to be former PM and current opposition leader Viktor Orban. Orban’s Fidesz (Fidelity) Party rally in Ferenciek Square drew an estimated 200,000 people.
Orban played to the crowds strong nationalist streak, many in the crowd wearing t-shirts calling for the return of Hungarian territories now part of neighbouring countries such as Romania and Serbia.
Parts of Orban’s speech reiterated his vehemently anti-immigration stance and his vision of Hungary as a strong nation that takes its lead from Western Europe. He made pointed reference to freedom coming from the West and oil coming from the East, pressing the crowds buttons in regard to an assertive and powerful Russia.
Some members of the crowd sported Aryan Brotherhood t-shirts, others wore traditional peasant garb and there was even one man wearing an Attila the Hun style hat carrying a Hun brotherhood flag. Many also sported Fidesz’s orange t-shirts, an echo of neighbouring Ukraine’s orange revolution.
The Fidesz rally held in the late afternoon gave some clues to the trouble that followed. Orban’s emotive speech, which mirrored themes from historic speeches by 1848 hero Sandor Petofi, about Hungarians having to make a stand and decide now whether to become winners or losers in the new Europe surely stoked some of the flames that would burn later that night.