Hungarian satirists Marabu and the Two-Tailed Dog Party offer light relief and insight in Prime Minister Viktor Orban's increasingly "illiberal democracy," reports Dan Nolan from Budapest.
"We don't need to build a fence - just write our salaries on the border."
When Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's campaign against EU migrant quotas failed, it added insult to injury that the best line came not from his government's 20-billion-forint (64.7 million euros) "information campaign," but from the country's merry prankster Gergo Kovacs.
In a counter-campaign, Kovacs, the founder of the spoof Two-Tailed Dog Party (MKKP), tweaked the government's fear-mongering slogans into his own: "Did you know? One million Hungarians want to move to Europe," "Did you know? The majority of corruption is due to politicians," and "Did you know? That a tree could fall on your head."
What's more, the MKKP seems to have influenced the result of the referendum. The movement's campaign for "Nemigen" (which translates as "no-yes" or "not really") encouraged Hungarians to check both boxes on their ballot slips. When votes were totted up, spoiled ballots totaled over 6 percent - well beyond the 0.5 to 2 percent registered in Hungary's five previous referenda since 1990. One polling station in Budapest's District XIII received 39.44 percent invalid ballots.
"Humor is a much better way than hating the politicians. If people just laugh at politicians, they can't do anything against them," Kovacs told DW at a party meeting in Budapest, where he and around 40 MKKP "passivists" discussed their plans for 2017. Next up for the MKKP is fielding a candidate in a Budapest by-election district in the spring. "Our candidate will promise to never go to the district - people don't really like politicians, so I think it's a good policy. But he will promise many new developments for another district, the one where he lives," Kovacs said.
Shades of grey
The MKKP morphed into a spoof political party from a street art project that endorsed "Sports Cigarettes" in 2004. One of the many gags since was the slogan "We will solve Hungary's debt crisis by pretending we don't speak English." Also notable was a counter-campaign to the spread of irredentist car stickers depicting Hungary with its pre-1920 borders - the country ceded 72 percent of its territory after World War I.
The MKKP launched its drive for a smaller Hungary (with the same shape as Greater Hungary). "Are you sick of travelling for hours and still being in your own country? Couldn't care less about Baranya county? Let's dump the useless places around the border," it argued.
MKKP passivists still take to Hungary's streets, often to paint tiny cracked sidewalk sections in four colors. On a recent trip to Pecs, however, police took Kovacs and other participants in for questioning. "We are planning to repaint it," Kovacs assured DW, "but in four shades of grey, because it seems that they like this color, and we don't want to make them angry."
Some may consider Orban's government to be beyond satire. In October Hungary's newspaper of record, "Nepszabadsag," was suddenly shut down after a buyout by Orban-friendly oligarch Lorincz Meszaros. In late December, the "Nepszabadsag" sign was put on display at the House of Terror museum, which documents Hungarian totalitarianism. "Nepszabadsag" means "freedom of the nation."
"Nepszabadsag (and its website nol.hu) was killed, or something like that. So our version, n0l.hu, is a very pro-government newspaper - because there are not enough of them," Kovacs said.
Life imitated art again in the final week of the year, when the Christmas edition of Orban's county newspaper "Fejer Megyei Hirlap" - which Meszaros has also acquired - accidentally featured a hacked interview. Copies of the county paper's print edition featured Orban being falsely quoted boasting of the rising number of corpses in Hungarian hospitals, admitting that the government is uninterested in popular opinion and urging people to honor the "pagan meaning of Christmas."
The hacked interview also had Orban saying "accusations of corruption as a political tool to discredit opponents have become absolutely standard - we use them too."
Six employees have been sacked from the newspaper, and police are investigating the incident.
Return of political jokes
"There's an almost Monty Python quality to this whole situation - it's so absurd," Eszter, an MKKP "passivist" and Budapest student, who asked that her full name not be published, told DW. "Seriously, these guys leading the country? The MKKP is the sanest reaction to all of this," she added.
Cartoonist Marabu, who was a regular presence on the pages of "Nepszabadsag," notes that satire is dependent on press freedom. "You can only joke about what people already know," he told DW. For Marabu, a stalwart of Hungarian satire best known for his "He Dodo!" strip, Hungary's political climate is starting to look familiar.
During the communist era, jokes such as "Why do we have two-ply toilet paper, when we are so poor? Because we have to send a copy of everything we do to Moscow," were a release valve for those living under a dysfunctional regime. "In the 1990s political jokes disappeared," Marabu said. "I wanted to bring them back, but they didn't work - somehow the political atmosphere wasn't right for those jokes," he said. "However, in recent years, thanks to the political situation, citizens not only look down on the politicians but actively hate them, and these old jokes are expedient again."
He gives an example: "There is a fire in Parliament. The [Orban party] Fidesz House Speaker Laszlo Köver runs back in to save the Transylvanian flag. Then [corruption-dogged Fidesz communications chief] Antal Rogan runs in and returns with a Gucci bag stuffed with cash. Finally, an elderly female toilet attendant heads towards the Parliament. 'What did you forget?' asks the security guard. 'I forgot to lock the door on Viktor [Orban]!' she replies."
The growing anger towards politicians "gives the joke voltage and a cathartic impact," according to Marabu. "A very bad mentality has surfaced in the country… downright hate. It's sad," he added.
One Marabu cartoon in particular captures the feelings of those who condemn Orban's policies and statements on refugees, who he has described as "a poison":
"Stop!" a Hungarian guard shouts at a man approaching a border station. "Muslim?"
"No, Christian," the man replies.
"That's fine then," says the border guard. "Hang on …" the guard does a double-take. "Very Christian?"
"Of course not! Just a nominal, superficial Christian. No solidarity, no brotherly love, and none of that Jesus and pope silliness."
"Ah, good then. Come in."