Although Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has seen periodic protests before, those taking place now feel different.
In the past, anti-Orbán protests — over the government’s treatment of asylum-seekers, its crackdown on NGOs, and expulsion of the Central European University — were mostly limited to Budapest and to a fairly narrow demographic group. This time, they are taking place in urban centres across the country.
Before, the value of protests was purely therapeutic. In a striking resemblance to what Julia Ioffe wrote about the 2011 protests in Moscow, the point of past protests in Hungary was in “the giddiness of watching people vent their political frustrations with a sense of humour and good cheer, and the euphoria of observing people discover that they are not alone, that there are thousands and thousands of people just like them.” These days, however, opposition parties are actively managing the events and engaging in civic activism in a strategic way.
The protests were triggered last week by new rules on overtime pay, dubbed the “slave law”, which allow businesses to request up to 400 overtime hours from employees every year, up from the current 250. The reform responds to a growing labour shortage in Hungary’s booming economy. Although the opposition to the measure came initially from trade unions, the new legislation “drew ire from all demographics, from both sides of the aisle,” Maté Hajba, the director of the Budapest-based Free Market Foundation, tells me.
The change might be in itself defensible on economic grounds — though one wonders whether Hungary would not be better off with a dose of labour migration. Still, this is only one small part of a broader package of changes introduced by the Fidesz government.
Earlier this month, a separate administrative court system was created, under direct political control, to deal with a wide range of public law matters: police oversight, tax law, public procurement, local government, competition law, public protests, and election and media issues. The judges in the new system – to be headed by a staunch Fidesz loyalist – will be appointed directly by the justice minister, who will also make decisions about their remuneration and promotion, shedding any pretence of independence.
There are other issues as well, most prominently the visible corruption in sales of public land to Fidesz supporters. And when the protests started, many noticed that both public-service broadcasters and pro-government media in private hands, which jointly form the overwhelming majority of Hungary’s media landscape, decided to simply ignore them. When the opposition MPs Bernadett Szél and Ákos Hadházy visited the headquarters of MTVA, the country’s public television station, to make enquiries, they were forcibly ejected from the premises by private security guards.
As in the past, a clear urban-rural divide runs across Hungary. In fact, short of relying on social media, people in rural areas cannot even access information about the protests because of how thoroughly ignored the issue has been by official media outlets. In spite of that, the reach outside of Budapest is unprecedented. They have also given a new degree of visibility to the Momentum Movement, a new pro-market liberal movement, initially formed to defeat Orbán’s grandiose plans to host the summer Olympics in Budapest.
In the immediate short run, it is hard to predict whether the protests can be sustained. With freezing temperatures and the holidays coming next week, the numbers of protesters are likely to dwindle, and the government also has ample scope to make concessions regarding the highly contentious but ultimately quite unimportant “slave law”.
Yet something deeper is already changing in the country, as the simultaneous presence of flags of the nationalist Jobbik party and of the Roma community at some of the protests illustrates. In particular, according to the former MP Zoltán Kész, there are “signs now that finally the opposition parties are beginning to grasp the importance of cooperation, which might come true at the municipal elections in the fall of 2019.”
Perhaps the current protests are just collective therapy on a larger scale. But maybe the pendulum is starting to swing back.
Earlier this year, Slovakia saw mass protests in the aftermath of the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, which not only resulted in the ousting of the populist Prime Minister Robert Fico but also added to the already existing ferment in the country’s reformist, pro-Western centre. Poland’s opposition did extremely well in recent local elections and even in the Czech Republic the public is slowly waking up to the reality of being governed by an oligarch mired in a plethora of scandals.
With some luck, 2019 may be the year when the Visegrad region will start finding its way back from authoritarian populism – and perhaps even providing an example to the rest of the Western world.