I caught up with the group of around 1000 refugees leaving Budapest on foot as they were crossing the Danube on the Elisabeth suspension bridge. We walked west along a dual carriageway. Families wheeled their belongings in pushchairs, with babies teetering on top. People were in flip-flops and beaten-up loafers. A woman pointed at my walking boots: ‘Very good,’ she said. Hungarian drivers stopped to offer people water and food. One man gave a family two pushchairs. At service stations, attendants rushed to the doors to stop people from entering, though they handed out bottles of water. A man on crutches overtook me, his friend carrying his prosthetic leg. It was about 150 miles to Vienna.
Last month Hungary’s teachers were out on the streets of Budapest. Thousands marched, demanding the government reduce child poverty and increase their wages: they earn 53 per cent of the average pay for university educated workers, the second lowest among OECD countries. Teachers’ salaries have decreased drastically since 2005 and government spending on primary and secondary education has dropped 14 per cent since 2008.
Everything appears to be going according to plan for Viktor Orbán. The Hungarian prime minister was re-elected on 6 April; after another week of counting absentee ballots and the votes of newly enfranchised ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring states, it is now clear that Orbán’s Fidesz party will retain its two-thirds majority in parliament – enough to change the constitution at any time it sees fit. Such concentration of power is unusual in Europe. But it conforms to the political vision Orbán outlined in a speech in 2009: Hungary, he claimed then, needed a dominant ‘central force’ to overcome not only the legacies of state socialism, but also what Orbán portrays as a failed transition after 1989.