What next for Hungary's anti-Orban protests?

Budapest (AFP) –


After a week of protests against the government of right-wing nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, sparked by reforms to labour law and the judiciary, the opposition and trade unions are trying to keep up the momentum.

- The spark -

Passed by parliament on 12 December, the new overtime law raises to 400 the number of additional hours that bosses can demand from employees annually, as well as allowing payment to be delayed by up to three years.

The government says it is responding to labour shortages and that the reform will allow those who want to work more to earn more but the opposition dubbed it a "slave law".

Also passed on the same day was another bill paving the way for new "administrative courts" to oversee cases concerning matters such as public procurement or electoral disputes.

Critics say the measure would cement the government's control over the judiciary.

- The movement -

The protests were initially organised in an ad hoc fashion and saw rare clashes break out in front of parliament in Budapest.

But the unions subsequently threw their weight behind the protests, as did the opposition, which has seen unprecedented unity between its left-wing, liberal and far-right factions.

Protesters have also been venting their anger at the increasing control that Orban and his Fidesz party exercise over the media, the judiciary and swathes of the economy.

Since being re-elected in April for a third straight term, Orban has also stirred controversy with his attacks on NGOs and the Central European University (CEU) -- founded by the government's bete noire, liberal Hungarian-born US billionaire George Soros.

On Monday the focus of the protests switched to the headquarters of the MTVA public broadcaster when a dozen MPs entered the premises and demanded -- unsuccessfully -- that a petition outlining their demands be read out on air.

- Running out of steam? -

Even though the protests have managed to keep momentum going since last week, the biggest turnout thus far has been 15,000 on Sunday, far from the 40,000 who protested against the first tranche of measures against the CEU in April 2017, or the demonstrations in 2014 against a proposed tax on internet usage.

Despite a few hundred demonstrators gathering at various points in other big cities, the movement remains essentially confined to the capital Budapest and even there only a few hundred turned out on Tuesday.

- Second wind -

According to one poll more than two-thirds of Hungarians sympathise with the movement, which now has its own anti-Orban symbol and hopes for a big turnout on Friday and Saturday before the Christmas break.

The opposition is also calling for a big demonstration to kick off the New Year in Budapest on 2 January.

Unions may be key to giving the movement a second wind if they make good on pledges to mount a general strike if the overtime law comes into force.

Thus far the government doesn't seem minded to offer any concessions, dismissing the protestors as "vandals" in the pay of Soros.

- 'Arrogant' style -

"How the wave of protests develops is closely linked to how the unions act," Balazs Boecskei, director of the IDEA policy analysis institute told AFP, who says only a general strike would be likely "to force the government to retreat".

However, the rate of unionisation is at an all-time low at only nine percent of workers.

Added to that is the mistrust the six main unions have traditionally had for each other which has hindered coordinated action.

That has meant they haven't been able to exploit Hungary's labour shortage, which should have played to their advantage.

Tamas Szekely from the VDSZ chemical workers' union admits that Orban has been able to capitalise on the situation.

"He doesn't even bother pretending to consult anyone and big businesses have adopted the government's arrogant style," Szekely told the index.hu website.

"The unions haven't understood that faced with Orban they have to be more activist, that there's no point sitting down to negotiate because there'll be no-one sitting opposite them to talk to," Boecskei said.

The unity of virtually all the opposition parties against Fidesz, however, does mark a turning point in Hungarian politics, according to the analyst Gabor Filippov.

"They're not staying passive any more when faced with the illusion of the rule of law which is conveyed by the regime. They are pressuring it into showing its true face," he told the 24.hu site.