Hungary: major protests against “slave law”

Right-wing Hungarian prime minister, Victor Orbán has received a blow as a wave of protests has spread throughout the country. The protests have been triggered by a new piece of legislation, labelled the “slave law”, which was passed on 12 December. This vicious attack on Hungarian workers will allow employers to increase the amount of overtime they can ask of workers from 250 to 400 hours per year, which equates to roughly eight hours per week. Not only this, but there can be a delay in payment for this overtime of as much as three years.

Students with the workers against the Slave Law ImageStudents with the workers against the Slave Law / Image: 444

Even before the law was passed, there were small protests outside the parliament building, demanding a rise in wages and for the government to reconsider this barbaric law. These protests have been steadily escalating over the last five days, culminating in a outpouring of over 15,000 people on Sunday 16 December, who marched on the state broadcasting headquarters in Óbuda.

Meanwhile, a handful of opposition MPs, managed to enter the building and engaged in heated exchanges with security, but were ultimately unable to convince the television station to allow for the demands of protesters to be presented to viewers on air. One such lawmaker, Ákos Hadházy, entered the state broadcasting headquarters, and before being assaulted by security, he was quoted as saying: “This is a bastion of their power... 80 percent of people get their information from the government.”

The MPs demands were as follows:

  • Rescinding the so-called slave law
  • Decrease required overtime hours for police officers
  • The end of Fidesz-run separate courts
  • Hungary must join the European Prosecutor’s Office
  • A non-partisan, independent state broadcaster. The immediate firing of Dániel Papp from the leadership of the state broadcaster.

Peaceful protest covered in tear gas ImagePeaceful protest covered in tear gas / Image: Hirhugo

Of course, this reflects their opportunism, and their attempts to demagogically hijack the movement for their own narrow means. Hence, their demands are limited in nature, but nevertheless they show, in a distorted manner, that a change is taking place in Hungary today. Amongst wide urban layers, the apathy of the previous period is dissipating, and a sense of optimism is in the air. By attacking the working class face on, Orbán is also stirring the workers up, forcing them into the political arena. Nevertheless, the class composition of these protests is still mixed, with middle-class and student elements dominating. This is evident in the the number of EU and Hungarian national flags seen in the crowds. The slogans are fairly catch-all, like “Orbán, get lost!”. However, now the trade unions are beginning to mobilise, and there is no indication of the movement coming to an end soon. So, the potential that these protests contain within them is of a much stronger character than they currently appear. This follows a similar trend throughout Eastern Europe, such as Albania and Lithuania, where a series of protest movements seem to be breaking the formerly calm surface of political life.“We feel it is the last chance to stop the dictatorship,” said Márton Bartha, 28, who was protesting outside the state media headquarters on Sunday night. “Maybe dictatorship is a strong word. But our freedom is being shrunk.”Unlike in previous protests, this time, the police have shown a clear lack of restraint: tear gas canisters were used against a crowd of about 2,000 outside parliament with little to no warning. Clearly, this shows the government fears what might come, perhaps there is a fear of ‘yellow vest’ style rioting in Budapest. Zselyke Csáky, research director at the democracy watchdog Freedom House was quoted as saying:

“Previously everyone was so well behaved. Even if 50,000 people participated in the protests for Central European University last year, there was an almost festive atmosphere. This time it is different.” It remains to be seen what the conclusion of these protests will be but the mood on the ground is one of sharp criticism of Orbán and a willingness to fight. “They don’t negotiate with anyone. They just do whatever they want. They steal everything. It’s intolerable. It cannot go on,” said one protester, Zoli, a transport worker.

Orbán tries to tighten his grip

Despite the outcry, the completely unphased Orbán was able to push this law through, because of his two-thirds supermajority in parliament. The ruling, right-wing coalition, Fidesz–KDNP, is comprised of the old parties the Hungarian Civic Alliance (Fidesz) and the Christian Democratic People's Party (KDNP), which have run on a joint ticket in every election since 2006. They held a commanding majority of over two-thirds of the seats since their first electoral victory since 2010. After controversially pushing through constitutional reforms, including decreasing the numbers of parliamentary seats, and altering election rules, they have twice won two-thirds supermajorities in both the 2014 and 2018 elections, despite winning less than 50 percent of the popular vote on both occasions.

Not only this, but in the same parliamentary session that approved the “slave law”, another contentious law, allowing the government to establish new administrative courts, was passed. These new courts will oversee sensitive issues such as electoral law, protests and corruption. As expected, Justice Minister László Trócsányi, a close Orbán ally, will oversee the courts.

We are not slaves. Our souls are not for sale. Good decision STRIKE The shop workers union Image"We are not slaves. Our souls are not for sale. Good decision: STRIKE. The shop workers union" / Image: Hirhugo

This is as yet another authoritarian measure by Orban to concentrate power in his own hands and those of his closest allies, just like he has been doing up until now through the suppression and buying out of opposition media outlets and the replacing of all political and judicial positions with oligarchs and Fidesz party members. Since 2010, Orbán has manoeuvred and cemented his power. Everything has been rewritten, from land reform, banking reforms and the creation of an unelected, unaccountable media council, which acts as a mouthpiece for the government. He has replaced all political opposition that formerly occupied positions of power, as well as the looting of state assets. He also wrote a highly reactionary constitution, which was codified in 2011. The establishment of these new “administrative courts” marks yet another addition to the series of laws cementing Orbán’s authoritarian rule over the country. As expected, these new laws have been incredibly unpopular. The new “slave law” especially so. It has acted as a focal point for the general anger, disenfranchisement and frustration in the country, particularly in the capital Budapest. There has been real backlash and resentment, even from previous government supporters. The Republikon Institute, a liberal think-tank in the country, released a poll showing that even 63 percent of Orbán’s supporters disapprove of this new slave law, as do 95 percent of his critics. Another think-tank (Policy Agenda) provided similar findings: they claim that 83 percent of Hungarians oppose the law.

In an immediate response to the law passing, a small group of roughly 200 protesters came out onto the streets of Budapest. Within the parliamentary chamber itself, there were scenes of chaos, as opposition MPs sounded sirens, blew whistles and angrily confronted government ministers. But this just shows their desperation as a powerless minority. They even resorted to singing the national anthem in an attempt to delay the vote, but it passed: 30 to 52 with only one abstention.

We need an alternative

As evidenced by the pathetic results of the previous two elections, the opposition in Hungary has been completely impotent and fragmented over the past eight years. The previously ruling Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) remains the largest opposition party and leading party of the so-called ‘left’. But as it has acted like any bourgeois party, carrying out austerity and overseeing widespread privatisation, which have brought nothing but misery and hardship to the masses. Indeed, the party has been haemorrhaging support since its glory days post-1990. In the eyes of ordinary workers, the party has become completely discredited, particularly after its disastrous 2006-2010 government, which saw it carry out a programme of austerity and form a lame-duck parliamentary minority with the then-Prime Minister Gyurcsány; announcing his resignation due to him failing to manage the economic crisis of the 2008 recession.

Imre Komjáthy vice president of the Socialist Party manhandled outside Parliament by the PoliceImre Komjáthy: vice president of the Socialist Party manhandled outside parliament by the police / Image: Hirhugo

There is no real alternative in the country and no party with a clear programme, or demands that can capture the real mood of anger and desperation of the masses. Therefore, the many protests and movements that have taken place under Orbán – notably the teachers’ strike that gripped the nation in 2016 – have had no political leadership that could carry the movement forward and ultimately challenge and oust Orbán. With this lack of a political outlet, this energy has been repeatedly squandered, and the fatigue of these defeats has caused mass political apathy. However, the “slave law” has once again provoked the workers, as this brutal attack is one too many to bear. Labour union leaders point out that Hungarians are already upset about low wages and poor workplace conditions. "And now to give employers, especially multinational companies who want even lower wages, so much more power over workers, it's very unfair," says László Kordás, head of the Hungarian Trade Union Confederation. The new law has been roundly condemned by every opposition party, bringing together the disparate and often feuding factions, alongside unaligned students, youth and others in the capital.

The reactionary government responds

The government’s response has been typical and similar to previous responses. Xenophobic, and anti-semitic tropes have been conjured up as a way to discredit the movement. The government claims the movement is part of a small, conspiratorial cabal of trouble-makers mainly centred around Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. A spokesman for the government, Zoltán Kovács, dismissed the demonstrations, saying, “We all know that there’s no popular support behind what is happening.” During the elections in the spring, Orbán claimed that Soros was behind a conspiracy to "flood" Europe with Muslim asylum-seekers. Fidesz actually released a statement on Saturday claiming it was “increasingly obvious that criminals have been part of the street riots organised by the Soros-network". The prime minister's allies are also blaming Soros for organising the protests against the overtime law. Gergely Gulyás, Orbán's chief of staff, declared that the protesters display "open anti-Christian hatred." This rhetoric is used to whip up reactionary support for Orbán’s government, a tactic he has repeatedly used to divide the workers and create a state of hysterical fear, so that he can strip state assets and push anti-worker legislation.

The protest the government says has no support blocks the most of downtown Budapest ImageThe protest the government says has no support blocks the most of downtown Budapest / Image: Hirhugo

When some 400,000 people travelled through Hungary in the middle of the migrant crisis of 2015 on their way to Western Europe, Orbán ordered fences put up to halt them. The European Commission then imposed a mandatory asylum quota for every EU state in response to the crisis, but Mr Orbán refused to accept it. In 2015, 177,000 people sought asylum in Hungary but only a few hundred were accepted. Last year, the number of asylum claims fell to around 3,200. Because of this the European Parliament voted in September to initiate so-called Article 7 proceedings: a process that could culminate in sanctions, including a loss of Hungary’s EU voting rights. This is highly unlikely, however, as the EU is too politically weak to enforce such sanctions, especially because European capital has been flowing into Hungary from Western Europe to take advantage of Hungary's relatively low wages.

Orbánomics

This investment in the economy and the exodus of Hungary’s skilled workers to other EU member-states such as Germany, Austria and the United Kingdom, as well as the vast majority of its unskilled workforce having been pushed into government financed workfare, instead of receiving unemployment benefit, means that Hungary's unemployment rate is artificially low: about 3.7 percent. This is creating a labour shortage in the country, especially of skilled workers. Orbán wanting to increase productivity, in order to overcome the labour shortage, while retaining the attraction of low wages in the Hungarian economy was the impetus for these “slave wages”.

One of Budapests main thoroughfares full of protesters ImageOne of Budapest's main thoroughfares full of protesters / Image: Hirhugo

Though the economy has been growing steadily, between 1-3 percent, over the last few years, which goes against the trend of other EU member nations. This is unsustainable, and it is unclear how long it can last. Furthermore, even those workers, whose own working conditions and wages are similar or lower than those in Hungary, find the country unattractive. Should they move abroad, they would choose Germany or other EU countries, rather than Orban’s regime, which is very similar to their own.

In defence of the legislation, the government told CNN that the "voluntary changes to working hours" were "in the interest of the workers" and would allow people to work and earn more. However, the workers of Hungary are not so easily fooled and they can see this law for what it really is: an attack against their class.

What is next for Hungary?

János Áder the President of HungaryJános Áder, the President of Hungary, is under pressure from the streets not to ratify the slave law / Image: Hirhugo

Class contradictions in Hungary are extremely high, the masses are discontent with their conditions, but the lack of any political leadership in the form of a working-class party or bold trade union leaders, holds back the political expression of this mood. Thus, Orbán maintains class “peace” by the threat of removing subsidies from poor families, the false threat of “floods” of migrants, and the threat of economic collapse. However, the present protests, that are still ongoing, have been escalating in numbers, locations and demands. Starting with a few hundred, and then a few thousand, the most recent demonstrations have been in the tens of thousands.

The six largest towns in the country have joined Budapest last Sunday and provided an added impetus to the struggle. In Szeged, the one remaining city in Hungary to be ruled by the so-called Socialist Party, people poured into the streets and speakers included not only politicians, but school students and working class leaders. All over the country, demonstrations involved forces that were totally new since the fall of Stalinism or have not taken part in protests for a very long time. This has culminated in the trade unions’ recent threat of a national general strike, if the president ratifies the slave law that has now been passed by parliament. 

Where the present protests will lead is not yet clear. In the absence of a working class party they might dissipate or be derouted by bourgeois politicians. Nevertheless, what they represent is signs of a change in consciousness - a result of recent events - and the first tremours of the class struggles which lie ahead.

What is clearly needed now is for this discontent to be channelled into political demands and a call to break with capitalism. Hungary has a fierce revolutionary tradition of fighting against oppression and its fighters deserve a leadership that doesn’t bend to reformism or get burned out from fatigue and failure. Only the ideas of Marxism can supply a leadership with the will to carry the Hungarian working class to victory. Only the ideas of Marxism can produce a programme that would enthuse the masses to carry this fight through. The call to break with capitalism and establish socialism, and genuine democracy, would vibrate through the country. In that scenario, not only would the mafia clique of Orbán and Fidesz be swept away, but a new society could be established, free of exploitation and the misery of class oppression.

Orderly protest outside Parliament Image 2Orderly protest outside parliament / Image: Hirhugo