The Hungarian Battle for Democracy

  • Jakub Mareš
  • 7.1.2019 08:20

The Hungarian government is pushing radical reforms to the country’s justice system and labour code in a move that constitutes a threat to democracy. The planned reforms have incited the largest anti-government protest since 2014. The government is unwilling to back down and a possible escalation might be shaping up.

A wave of massive protests, targeted against the Orban administration, has swept Hungary in the recent days. They are not the first anti-government protests this year (there were also demonstrations against the closing of the Central European University in Budapest), but they are the largest since 2014. Unlike previous protests, they have managed to unify a varied spectrum of opposition parties, ranging from liberals to the socialist MSZP and the far-right Jobbik and about two-thirds of Hungarians support the protests. The largest demonstrations are taking place in Budapest (around 10 to 15 thousand people), other cities such as Debrecen, Miskolc, Győr, Veszprém or Szeged have seen a lesser turnout.

The protests began on 12 December, after the parliament ratified a new amendment of the labour code, which has earned an unflattering alias – the ‘Slave Law.’ The amendment raised the yearly limit for overtime from 250 to 400 hours, with up to a three-year period of compensation. At the same time, it also states that employers are no longer compelled to negotiate with trade unions about the pay of their employees.

 

"Apart from a cumbersome attempt at solving an economic problem, Orban’s action might also be motivated by an attempt to lower the price of labour for industrial interest groups connected to the administration and keep up the pace of economic growth."

 

The Orban administration justifies the amendment by a shortage of workers – the unemployment in Hungary reached a mere 3.7 % in 2018. The same motif can be observed behind some of Orban’s other measures, such as the outlawing of homelessness. Apart from a cumbersome attempt at solving an economic problem, Orban’s action might also be motivated by an attempt to lower the price of labour for industrial interest groups connected to the administration and keep up the pace of economic growth. Orban’s other policies that reduce the effectiveness of the Hungarian system of checks and balances and concentrate control over the judiciary and the media into the hands of the ruling Fidész party have been legitimized by the fear of subversive foreign influences. These are personified by George Soros, a Hungarian emigrant of Jewish descent and a well-known benefactor of liberally oriented NGO’s in Hungary.

 

"According to OECD statistics, around 600 000 Hungarians are currently working abroad."

 

It is likely that the amendment will not solve the true cause of a workforce shortage in Hungary – according to OECD statistics, around 600 000 Hungarians out of the total population of 9 million are currently working abroad. If the repressive measures continue, Hungary will likely lose more of its highly qualified workforce, which is instrumental to the modernization of its economy. Following this logic, the next possible repressive step for Orban would be introducing legislative measures that would make it harder for Hungarians to work abroad. 

However, the demonstrations are not only about overtime but also about preserving the country’s democracy. On the same day as the ‘Slave Law,’ a controversial reform of the justice system was passed. This reform transferred the administrative courts under the direct control of the Ministry of Justice. The protestors also demand a reform of the public service media, which have in recent years come under the control of a holding connected to Viktor Orban. The government’s influence on the media goes so far that deputies from opposition parties were not allowed airtime to voice their objections against the new legislative measures. The fourth demand of the protestors is for Hungary to join the European Anti-fraud Office (OLAF). This demand is motivated by the increasing discontent regarding corruption in the administration.  

The unification of practically all opposition parties against Orban has no legislative significance – Fidész in an electoral alliance with the Christian KDNP party won by a landslide in the April elections, earning 49 % of the votes. This victory secured them a constitutional majority with 133 seats in the parliament. The ‘Slave Law’ was ratified by the Hungarian President Jánosz Áder, also a member of Fidész, on the 20th of December. Although the trade unions threatened a general strike and vouched to continue protesting, union membership in Hungary is quite marginal. Another chance for a political turnaround might emerge in the next elections – however, the next parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in 2022 and it is unclear whether the current events will affect the popularity of Fidész in any way. Nézőpont institute, which is tightly connected to the ruling party, estimates that the popularity of Fidész rose up to 54 %, while research conducted by the Public agency showed a 1 % decrease.

 

"We can observe the emergence of a group of ‘rebellious’ eastern states, which diverge from the rest of the EU on the issues of migration, rule of law and democracy as a whole."

 

The options available to the European Union are limited. The strongest tool at its disposal is the suspension of membership rights that is anchored in Article 7. However, this measure mandates that all members of the Council of the European Union agree that the member state in question violated its obligations. In the past, the EU considered enforcing Article 7 against Poland. Poland was then aided by Hungary and in turn, it promised to do the same for Budapest. We can, therefore, assume that if the EU was to invoke Article 7, one or more of the V4 countries would rally behind Hungary. We can thus observe the emergence of a group of ‘rebellious’ eastern states, which diverge from the rest of the EU on the issues of migration, rule of law and democracy as a whole. Not only is the Orban administration able to deflect any attempts at interference from the EU, but it might also even use them as a justification for further extreme measures. 

Since Fidész – KDNP gained a constitutional majority, Hungary is swiftly heading towards authoritarianism. Orban’s group of oligarchs is relatively young and cohesive. So far, it has used all attempts at limiting its power to gain further control of the country’s democratic institutions. However, the current economic problems, caused partially by the repressive policies, are pushing Fidész towards adopting measures that have adverse effects on its own voters. This could in time prove to be a blunder that the opposition might exploit. On the other hand, it is also possible that Orban will be able to concentrate power over the media and the state apparatus before the 2022 elections to such an extent that the opposition will not have the means to challenge him and unpopular measures legislated at the start of the election term will lose their potential to mobilize an organized resistance.

About author: Jakub Mareš

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