March 15, 2016 / 5:46 PM / 4 years ago

Hungarians stage mass rally against Orban's education reforms

BUDAPEST, March 15 (Reuters) - More than 10,000 Hungarians protested Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s education reforms on Tuesday, in the biggest demonstration against his policies since a 2014 movement that forced him to backtrack on taxing internet use.

The rain-soaked rally, staged on a national holiday, also drew support from some healthcare workers and dozens of civil groups, organisers said on the Facebook page of the event.

The protest was the third major demonstration since February over Orban’s education reforms, which critics say overburden teachers and restrict their choice of textbooks. The crowds filled a main square and nearby streets outside Hungary’s neo-gothic Parliament.

Orban’s government took control of schools from local authorities three years ago, and a central body now regulates the system. It has increased teachers’ workload and implemented a new curriculum using textbooks critics say contain errors.

Tuesday’s rally, which coincided with the anniversary of a 19th century uprising against Habsburg rule, also provided an outlet for many to vent their anger over Orban’s broader reforms, which critics call heavy-handed and authoritarian.

“I consider it important that you can express your views freely, to be able to live and work freely. Unfortunately, this is not the case today,” said Andras Hornyeki before the crowd marched across central Budapest.

“Viktor Orban, he is the biggest problem. He has dug up the country into two halves and as long as he remains in politics, these two halves will not be whole.”

Teachers at a school in the northeastern town of Miskolc ignited the protests when they drew up a petition demanding the government restore schools’ autonomy.

The government responded by replacing its education state secretary and has started negotiations with teachers. It was not immediately clear whether Tuesday’s rally would force Orban into any concessions over his reforms.

Laszlo Kiss, a nurse, who also attended the rally, said the anniversary carried a symbolic meaning.

“We have been asking for changes for long and for the government to stand up for the people that had elected it, but we cannot feel it,” he said. “The message today is the same, for the government, whose politicians do not do their utmost for things to go on track.”

Public support for Orban’s Fidesz party dipped in February, a poll by the Median institute said, after months of growing or stable backing boosted by the hard line the government took on the migrant crisis.

Earlier, Orban used his anniversary speech to reject what he called a plot by European bureaucrats to refashion the cultural and ethnic fabric of the continent with masses of immigrants.

“We cannot let Brussels put itself above the law,” said Orban. “We will not import crime, terrorism, homophobia and a brand of anti-Semitism that sets synagogues ablaze ... there will be no outlaw districts, no riots and no gangs hunting for our wives and daughters.”

Orban drew several rounds of applause from supporters gathered outside Hungary’s National Museum, where large groups of Polish supporters were also in attendance.

But in a corner of a nearby square his voice was drowned out by whistles and boos of a group of protesters behind a police line chanting “dictator” and flashing red cards to Orban, a well-known soccer enthusiast. (Writing by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Larry King)

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