Hungary’s Sudden Protests Punch a Hole in Orbán’s Legitimization Narrative

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Photo Credit: Zoltan Galantai / Shutterstock
A new wind of political protest has been blowing in

A new wind of political protest has been blowing in Hungary since last Wednesday. Contrary to previous waves of dissent against the autocratizing regime of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the current one is not only firmly embraced by all parties of the political opposition, from the socialists to the greens to the liberals and the radical-right Jobbik, but also by the labor unions and a colorful spectrum of resolute protesters on the streets. The geographical scope of the protests is more comprehensive than ever; not only Budapest was paralyzed during the past days, but demonstrations were reported from a couple of major cities and roadblocks were put up by union activists throughout the country in a way resembling the rise of France’s “Gilets Jaunes”.

The prime demand of the protest movement – the withdrawal of a recent change in the labor law that has been dubbed the “slavery act” and of the administrative-court reform – cannot conceal the deeper, straightforwardly anti-regime characteristics of the last days’ events. These not only underline the regime’s increasing irresponsiveness to the public and unwillingness to refrain from a further concentration of power and autocratization, but they have also punched holes in its legitimizing narrative and they can create a strategic opportunity for the opposition to shake off its paralysis.

European and other countries and institutions should watch the events in Hungary closely and address the issue of the administrative-court reform in the same way they did with the controversial judiciary reform in Poland. The protests offer a window of opportunity for the European institutions that have long complained about the weak political opposition in Hungary. The sudden spark of democratic protest can easily be snuffed, but it may offer the chance to ignite a transition back to liberal democracy. Missing this opportunity would not be a simple political mistake by the EU, it would be an offense against the principles of democracy and rule of law. 

The last straws?

The protests were triggered by the scandalous adoption of an amendment of the Labor Code on December 12. The law increased the amount of overtime that employers are allowed to demand from the current 250 hours a year to 400 hours, and it extended the accounting and payment period of overtime from one year to three years. To avoid public consultations about planned legislation that is compulsory for government proposals, the motion was submitted instead by two individual MPs of the governing party, Fidesz. The legislation was then rushed through parliament, and the debate was accompanied by controversial measures, like refusing opposition members the permission to speak. On December 12 the governing majority also refused to discuss amendments proposed by the opposition parties and rejected all of them in a single vote. Protesting members occupied the Speaker’s pulpit to obstruct the final vote, but the governing parties passed the law without a proper chairing of the session and without the use of members’ electronic ID voting cards, which is unprecedented. This raises serious questions with regard to the law’s constitutionality.

During the same session, the governing parties also passed a bill that gives the administrative courts and the newly established Administrative High Court the authority to rule in politically highly sensitive cases, like electoral or public procurement complaints, and that also empowers the minister of justice alone to select and appoint the members of all administrative courts. The change resembles in several aspects the judicial reform in Poland and severely undermine the independence of the judiciary.

Spontaneous demonstrations started last Wednesday and resulted in tumultuous scenes in front of the Fidesz headquarters and of the parliament. The riot police deployed tear gas against the crowd without prior warning and since then a mounting number of police abuses have been revealed by the remaining independent media outlets, from arbitrary arrests to illegal data gathering and violence against arrested protesters. The vice-chair of the Momentum party, Anna Donáth, was also put under temporary arrest overnight on Wednesday, while on Sunday opposition parliamentarians were removed by armed security guards from the state television’s building, although their office gives them the right to enter all public institutions.        

The government media has called protests illegal and “anti-Christian” riots and accused the American philanthropist-billionaire George Soros of organizing them. Some went as far as claiming the “Maidan screenplay” was being deployed in Budapest.

After the political escalation in the parliament and on the streets of Budapest, an alliance was forged by all opposition parties, from the center-left Hungarian Socialist Party and Democratic Coalition to the liberal and green parties Momentum, Politics Can Be Different, and Dialogue, and the radical-right Jobbik. Building on the initial protests of the labor unions, demonstrations have spread throughout the country. The option of a general strike has also been raised by the unions.

What is new?

What is new about these protests is not only the overarching anti-regime coalition of opposition parties (something that utterly failed when attempted in the run-up to the elections earlier this year) or the break out from the opposition heartland of Budapest. The amendment of the labor law signals the regime’s growing irresponsiveness to the public, while the court reform reflects its unwillingness to avoiding further steps to concentrate power, but these features are not really new either. The real novelty is that Orbán was bold or careless enough to punch two holes in his own legitimation narrative, and the damage caused will not be so easily repaired as in the case of the internet tax demonstrations in 2014.

First, the use of force and tear gas against a mostly peaceful crowd and the irregularities of the police measures have torn down the Fidesz myth of political victimhood that, since protests against the earlier Socialist government in 2006, associated disproportionate police violence with the left, while it may trigger solidarity with the protesters among broader society.

Second, the “economic freedom fight” against the interests of multinational companies has been a cornerstone of the Fidesz discourse since 2010 that also framed left-liberal opposition parties as puppets of “foreign capital”. The economic and social policies of Fidesz might always have emphasized the primacy of “workfare” over “welfare”, but its political discourse embraced social paternalism. However, the change in the labor law has severely damaged the perception of a protective paternalistic state and made the government’s old-fashioned neoliberal views rather obvious. Government-friendly circles hinted that the legislation had become necessary due to the pressure that was exerted by important international investors. Some suggest that changing overtime rules might have been part of the deal last July between the government and BMW, which will build a new manufacturing plant in Debrecen.

The use of disproportionate force by the police and the abandoning of social protectionism by the government have demolished two important legitimacy discourses of Fidesz in quick succession. Orbán’s strategy to isolate different political and social groups to prevent any solidarity that could create leverage against the regime has apparently failed due to his own arrogance and unwariness. What happened in parliament may have opened the eyes of several opposition politicians and voters to the fact that Fidesz does not shy away from the violation of basic parliamentary rules to reach its political goals.

The current situation can open broader prospects for the opposition if the demonstrations can be sustained. Leaving the parliamentary setting and exploring the terrain of extra-parliamentary protest was a logical choice in a country that, after “free but not fair” elections in 2014 and 2018, resembles more and more a competitive authoritarian regime. Due to the near-complete absence of a tradition of political violence, the protests will hardly turn into any Maidan-like events, except in case of serious provocations by the government or radical-right groups. However, they may rebalance the completely uneven political power relations in the country and can open new prospects for a democratic renewal.

European and other countries and institutions need to pay serious attention to the current situation in Hungary. EU institutions must address the issue of the administrative court reform as they did in the case of the judicial reform in Poland, or else they will lose any credibility with regard to the protection of European fundamental values. The launch of the Rule of Law Mechanism by the European Commission to complement the already running Article 7 procedure constitutes the most obvious and unavoidable step in this regard. Outsiders have always complained about a lack of political opposition in Hungary that impedes challenging the regime’s autocratization process at EU level. The protests give a window of opportunity to the European institutions. Missing this chance would be more than just a political mistake, it would be an offense against the principles of democracy and rule of law in the EU. The democratic protests offer the chance to enable a transition back to liberal democracy for Hungary.