Hungarian government faces warm political winter


photo: Attila Vajnai

On Sunday, 16th of December more than 30,000 people rallied against a new “Slave Law” passed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s right wing government.  Matyas Benyik and György Droppa report.

The wave of mass demonstrations was started by the trade unions on 8th of December before the parliamentary vote. About ten thousand protesters gathered at the Hungarian Parliament building to demonstrate against the changes to the Labour Law dubbed as “slave law”.

The changes include raising the maximum amount of overtime workers can put in a year from 250 to 400 hours and relaxing other labour rules. The legislation also gives employers three years instead of one to settle payments of accrued overtime. Another amendment allows employers to agree on overtime arrangements directly with workers, bypassing collective bargaining agreements and the trade unions. On Wednesday, 12th of December the amendment of labour  and other controversial laws amid scenes of chaos were also adopted as opposition MPs attempted to block the podium and sounded sirens, blew whistles and angrily confronted Orbán. Hungary’s parliament was thrown into scenes of turmoil. The opposition claimed that the voting procedure was completely against the House Rules and was invalid.

Shortly after the vote on Wednesday late night, around two thousand people, shouting “Orbán go to hell” marched through Budapest  and converged on the steps of the parliament. Some protesters hurled objects at police, who responded with pepper spray/tear gas, and thirty five demonstrators were arrested.

Since 12th of December every day there are demonstrations not only in Budapest, but in Pécs, Gyor, Békéscsaba and in other towns. On 13th of December the Budapest rally was organized by the Students’ trade union and the Free University Group. Gáspár Miklós Tamás, a well-known Hungarian philosopher stated that students and workers have not demonstrated together for a very lomg time in Hungary.

On Saturday, 15th of December the anti-government demonstration started in the centre of Budapest at the Heroes Square, and continued on Kossuth Square in front of the parliament building. On Sunday night a spontaneous mass demonstration took place marching from the parliament to the state television (about 5.5 km) with red flags in the first row. Protesters led by two independent opposition politicians, ex-Co-chairs of the green  Politics Can be Different  (Lehet Más a Politika – LMP) party, who were expelled from LMP,  wanted to read a petition consisting of five points but they were refused permission to do so.  The list of five demands MPs wanted to read out on television included the immediate withdrawal of the “slave law”, less police overtime, joining the European Prosecutor’s Office, an independent judiciary and independent public media. Several opposition MPs, both leftists and right-wingers, used their immunity to enter the building and spent the night there.

In the Hungarian context, demonstrating at the public media building has a historical background. In the early spring of 1848, when a new revolutionary wave swept across Europe on March 15 the radicals of Pest[i] formulated the “Twelve Points” and demanded – among others – freedom of press at the printing house of newspapers. In October 1956 the revolutionaries wanted to read their demands in the Radio building, where the shooting started. The building of the state TV headquarters played an important role at the time of systemic change at the end of 1980s.

In Hungary the public media buildings have an outstanding relevance in the revolutionary process. In October 2006 when the Socialists were in power and Fidesz was in opposition, the TV building in the heart of Budapest and attacked and set on fire by a right-wing mob after the voice recording of then Chair of the Hungarian Socialist Party (Magyar Szocialista Párt – MSZP), PM Gyurcsany’s  “lie speech”  was leaked.  Shortly afterwards the headquarters of the public TV channel was moved from the centre to the outer district  of Budapest to make mass demonstrations more difficult. It is an unprecedented fact that at the moment practically the whole public media  (newspapers, radio stations, public and commercial TV channels) are sold and in the hands of Orbán’s oligarchs/childhood friend, Lorinc Mészáros. More than 200 newspapers are mainly owned by Mészáros’s Mediaworks. Only two TV channels (RTL Klub and ATV) and one radio station, of which broadcasting is unavailable nationwide (Klubrádió), one newspaper (Népszava) are the exceptions, but there is a strong effort by Orbán to take control over these media, too. The public media are widely considered as a “lies factory”, either distorting or silencing the real news. Regrettably, the Hungarian public has accepted with resignation that public media are inaccessible to them. Today a massive flood of lies is prevailing in Hungary.

On Monday morning armed security guards violently ejected two MPs from the state TV building. During the day, other opposition MPs, namely from: Liberal Socialist Democratic Coalition (Demokratikus Koalició  – DK), Dialogue (Párbeszéd – P),  MSZP,  LMP, the extreme right Jobbik, stepped through the fence of the public TV headquarters to get in touch with their colleagues. One MP, László Varjú of DK was driven away in an ambulance car later on Monday after sustaining minor injuries in a tussle with the security guards. After working hours, demonstrations flared up again at the public TV building located now in the outskirts of Budapest.

The protests today entered their tenth day – the most violent since Fidesz came back to power in 2010. The protests are led by the – up until now divided – trade unions, opposition parties and  students, who are outraged at reforms introduced by the ruling party. The demonstrations keep going continuously, including throughout the night; on average 30-50 people are arrested daily after clashes with the police who use tear gas.

Over the course of a week, we have seen a new kind of opposition emerging – the attitude of the opposition to Orbán’s system has changed fundamentally and we are in the process of more radicalization. Protests in the past week have been the most violent in Hungary for over a decade with dozens arrested and at least fourteen police injured. The majority of the protesters are young people under the age of thirty.

[i] Budapest as a city was founded only after the unification of  Pest, Buda and Óbuda towns in 1873.


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