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Hungary protests give opposition a chance to work together

December 21, 2018
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Protesters during a rally held against the government in Eger, Hungary, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018. The Hungarian government is not planning to change recently adopted amendments to the labor code that have led to days of protests. Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs on Wednesday described the demonstrations as "political" and tied them to groups he claimed are backed by financier and philanthropist Geoge Soros. (Peter Komka/MTI via AP)

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Recent protests in Hungary have given the fragmented opposition a real opportunity to work together as they challenge Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has led his country with increasing powers since 2010.

The protests, which started last week in the wake of new labor rules, incorporated an array of grievances on issues like limits on the free press and increasing corruption. Another rally is to be held Friday evening in Budapest.

Since returning to power eight years ago, Orban has been reshaping Hungary. New laws governing the media and churches have been enacted while the state has an ever-increasing presence in all walks of life, from industry to the arts and to sports.

With “unorthodox” policies, Orban’s governments have sought to shore up the Hungarian economy, which a decade ago needed to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund, while also increasingly centralizing power. At election times, his Fidesz party remains popular, securing a third consecutive two-thirds majority in April.

Emboldened by his latest big majority in parliament, Orban has forced a Budapest-based university founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros to move most its programs to Vienna. He retains his fiery rhetoric against migrants and has refused to join a new, European Union public prosecutor*s office focusing on fraud and corruption.

However, the recent protests have shown the opposition stirring.

The catalyst to the protests was a new labor code. Dubbed the “slave law” by critics, the changes won parliamentary approval on Dec. 12. They would increase the number of overtime hours employers could ask workers to put in voluntarily, essentially bringing back a six-day work week, and allow overtime payments to remain unpaid for up to three years. On Thursday, Hungary’s president signed the new code into law.

“I think the slave law is a spark, with the protest banner saying ‘We’ve had enough’ capturing it best,” said Csaba Toth, strategic director of the Republikon Institute think tank.

Orban’s critics “have had the feeling ever since (April’s election) there’s very little they can actually do to show their dissatisfaction with the government and with the way things are going.”

The atmosphere in Hungary is certainly getting more febrile. On Monday, several opposition lawmakers were physically expelled from the state TV headquarters after spending the night in the building trying to get their demands read on air.

Akos Hadhazy, an independent lawmaker who was among those assaulted by security guards, said Hungary was now closer to becoming a dictatorship while government officials called on the opposition to respect the law.

Frustration with the amendments to the labor law began before they were passed. Opposition lawmakers were prevented by parliamentary authorities from fully expressing their views during the draft bill’s debate while government-party legislators swept aside in a single vote some 2,800 amendments to the bill.

The opposition also attempted to delay the vote in the legislature by blocking access to the speaker’s podium and blowing whistles and sounding sirens during the voting session, all to no avail.

“Whatever we try to do within the normal parliamentary framework — like presenting amendments or draft laws or debating in the committees — falls on deaf ears and everything is forcefully brushed aside,” said Timea Szabo, a lawmaker with the Dialogue party.

“We have reached the point where we simply have to resort to other means within the frame of non-violence.”

Lawmakers and supporters from a wide range of parties — from the nationalist Jobbik party to the Socialist Party, as well as the new Momemtum party and others — have been participating in the protests.

“For now it’s a fragile cooperation but we are working to strengthen it,” Szabo said. “The mere fact that we have reached the point at the end of 2018 that we can cooperate with Jobbik on some issues . is a great result. Our hope is that in the long term it can result in a new kind of cooperation.”

There have been few effective protests against Orban since 2010, though the government scrapped plans for a tax on internet usage after several rallies in 2014 by mostly young students and citizens, with one march attracting as many as 100,000 people.

“There is an emerging unity of the opposition and you can also see the unions and the civil organizations working together. All that might result in something,” Toth said, noting that national elections aren’t scheduled until 2022.

“Any attempt to go against the government starts with the opposition solidifying its own base and that’s what this is good for.”

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Gorondi, based in Budapest, reported from Buenos Aires.

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