Street protests in Hungary swelled for the fifth day Monday over a proposed “slave law” and other moves by the increasingly authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orban. But his government is denying broad opposition and blaming the unrest on its favorite villain, George Soros.
An estimated 15,000 demonstrators braved sub-zero temperatures Sunday in a rare show of opposition to Orban’s government, with demonstrations spreading beyond the capital Budapest for the first time in the current wave of unrest.
The protests, drawing support from a broad coalition of groups including left-wing opposition parties, students, trade unions, and disenchanted citizens, mobilized out of anger at recent moves by Orban’s government — most notably a change to the labor code, dubbed the “slave law,” that raises the maximum level of overtime employers can request to 400 hours a year.
Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs claimed there was no widespread public support for the protests. “We all know that there’s no popular support behind what is happening,” he said.
Since the unrest began Wednesday, protests have widened into a broader show of opposition to the government’s authoritarian direction, demanding the restoration of an independent judiciary and media in a country where Orban has been relentlessly consolidating power and rolling back democratic norms.
But speaking to Hungarian television Monday morning, Balasz Hidveghi, director of communications for Orban’s ruling Fidesz party, said the demonstrations were being orchestrated by the “network” surrounding the Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist Soros.
“The Soros network is an extensive organization that has several ways of influencing public life, and one of its common ways is to make street disturbances when it fails to get political support otherwise,” he said, adding that the demonstrations were intended to discredit Hungary’s image.
Soros, who supports liberal and pro-democratic causes through his Open Society Foundations, is regularly the target of smears from Orban’s government, which accuses the liberal scion of being at the heart of a plot to flood Europe with Muslim migrants and erode the Continent’s traditional Christian identity.
What are people protesting about?
While his government’s direction has drawn regular criticism from abroad and set him in constant conflict with the European Union, it had enjoyed strong domestic support at home, and broad protests against its policies had been relatively rare.
That changed last week, when the government passed two controversial pieces of legislation, sparking a new wave of protests.
The first is the so-called “slave law,” which both raises the maximum number of overtime hours employees can be asked to work in a year from 250 to 400 — and gives employers up to three years to calculate and pay for the overtime, rather than one under existing law.
The government argues that law will help the employers seeking staff in an economy battling with labor shortages, and will benefit workers looking to boost their hours. Labor activists argue the new law makes workers vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of multinationals, and that the three years it allows for overtime payments is unacceptable.
Polls showed the law was unpopular even among the government’s own supporters, Dorian Elek, director of political think tank the Paradigm Institute, told VICE News.
“The governing party was definitely not expecting a fierce reaction like this,” he said. One poll by the Republikon Institute showed 63 percent of Orbán’s supporters disapproved of the law, along with more than 95 percent of his critics.
He said the protests marked a rare success by the fragmented opposition in publicly channeling anti-government anger over an issue, in an environment where the government has a tight grip on the media.
Protesters have also been angered by a bill passed last week that paves the way for a new parallel system of “administrative courts” to oversee public administration cases, to be placed under the control of Justice Minister Laszlo Trocsanyi, an Orban ally. Critics see the move as a further move to consolidate power in the hands of Orban’s increasingly authoritarian government.
The protests have also drawn support from the student activists who have been demonstrating to save Central European University — a prestigious Soros-funded institution that announced earlier this month it was relocating its main base of operations to Vienna as a result of political pressure from the government. It was the second Soros-backed institution to be forced out of Hungary this year, after Open Society Foundations relocated its Budapest office to Berlin in May.
What happened Sunday?
At Sunday’s protests, dubbed “Merry Christmas, Mr. Prime Minister” by organizers, demonstrators lit flares, chanted “Don’t steal” and called for independent courts and media. “All I want for Xmas is democracy,” read one banner.
Clashes broke out late Sunday as a group of about 2,000 gathered outside the state media headquarters MTV, seen as a crucial propaganda arm for Orban’s government. Police clad in riot gear fired tear gas on the crowd, as protesters chanted “factory of lies,” and unsuccessfully demanded that a group of opposition MPs be allowed to read their demands on air.
Footage circulated on social media of opposition MP Akos Hadhazy being manhandled and dragged away by security as he staged a sit-in at the broadcasters’ offices early Monday.
In a livestream shortly after, Hadhazy denounced the state media as the “heart of the system” whose purpose was to manipulate the population and silence critics. Other opposition lawmakers refused to leave, and were joined by other MPs early Monday, who jumped a fence to enter the complex and vowed not to leave until the protesters’ demands were broadcast.
“Will not back down until we can read the demands of protesters,” tweeted Istvan Ujhelyi, a Socialist MEP.
Organizers have called for further demonstrations outside the broadcaster on Monday night, but so far the government has shown little sign of making any concessions over what government minister Gergely Gulyas called “the aggressive display of a tiny minority.” Orban enjoys strong public support, and his party was returned to government for the third consecutive time in April in an election that monitors determined were free but not fair.
Cover: Anti-government demonstrators march across Margaret Bridge over the River Danube with the Parliament building in the background, in Budapest, Hungary, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018. Protesters are demonstrating against recent changes to the labour laws. (Balazs Mohai/MTI via AP)