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The Revolt Against Orbán

G. M. Tamás

Hungary has been gripped by mass protests against Viktor Orbán’s 'slave law' on overtime. It's the biggest challenge yet to the far-right government.

Demonstrators protesting against recent legislative measures introduced by the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban stand outside Parliament on December 13, 2018 in Budapest, Hungary. Laszlo Balogh / Getty

Interview by
David Broder

On December 12, Hungary’s parliament passed a law allowing employers to demand staff work up to 400 hours overtime per year, with payment delayed for up to three years. The measure advanced by far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz government sparked mass protests without precedent since he came to office in 2010.

Widely derided as a “slave law,” the move could force Hungarians to work an extra day a week, with the much-delayed payment likely eroded by inflation. The means of the bill’s passing — rammed through parliament by an authoritarian government regardless of constitutional niceties — has linked it to a wider battle over Hungarian democracy.

Over the last week rallies have spread across the country. The largest thus far was in a freezing Budapest on Sunday, as 15,000 demonstrated, but after a series of other protests and blockades unions are talking of calling a general strike in January. Led by unions and students, the movement also includes the whole sweep of parties opposed to Orbán’s government.

Jacobin’s David Broder spoke to Hungarian writer and philosopher G.M. Tamás, a participant in the protests, about the “slave law,” the origins of the movement, and the threat it poses to Orbán.


DB

Why has the overtime law become a lightning rod for discontent? Do these protests build on other recent anti-government mobilizations? How are they organized, and how have they sought to make themselves heard?

GMT

These protests take place amidst a spread of discontent across the region, with the huge demonstrations in Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia (motivated by various factors, but all in some vague anti-systemic mode). And so, too, amidst a wider instability across Europe, from Spain to Britain, France and Germany. Yet the protests in Hungary were also triggered by a number of more specific factors, some of them fortuitous.

Constitutional custom and parliamentary rules in Hungary demand that bills as important as the overtime law should be subject to detailed and protracted parliamentary debate and there should be consultations with interested parties, in this case meaning trade unions and employers. The government has circumvented this by presenting it as a “private member’s bill” under the name of two MPs from the parliamentary majority, making possible to pass it without much fuss in a single day.

The opposition tried a filibuster by proposing more than two thousand amendments, but the Speaker decided (illegally) that they should be rejected with a single vote. Then the opposition occupied the Chair and prevented the day’s business from taking place by blowing whistles and trumpets, with constant shouting and so on.

All this was broadcast live on television and the internet. In the evening, a first improvised, spontaneous demonstration took place in Budapest’s Parliament Square (Kossuth tér). The next day, leftist students initiated another gathering in the same place, where I had the honor of giving the first speech. But all this was grafted on to the previous demonstration against the banishment of the Central European University which was forced to relocate to Vienna and against other repressive measures against universities and research institutes, where I have also spoken, and where there were already voices demanding a merger of the students’ and of the workers’ demands. “Student-worker solidarity” was the most popular slogan.

The next day, opposition MPs tried to have the popular demands read out on state TV — in fact about 90 percent of all media have been subordinated to the ruling extreme right, with various methods, and they did not report on popular demands at all — accompanied by several thousand people in the snow. The MPs have the right to enter any state institution, so they were let in, but their request for an interview was rejected.

The opposition MPs stayed overnight in the TV building and at dawn they were brutally thrown out by security forces belonging to a firm privately owned by the Home Secretary, General Pintér. This marked a turning point, and the protest has now become continuous. There are roadblocks and demonstrations everywhere, endless internet initiatives, pamphlets, jokes, songs, videoclips, gifs, and memes. There is a joyous atmosphere of revolt and mass expression of humorous contempt for the regime in a usually morose and apathetic country.

DB

It seems that the opposition is extremely diverse, from the liberal left to Jobbik, well-known internationally as a far-right party. What common demands do they have? Has Jobbik changed course? What role have labor unions played in the mobilization — what kind of workers are involved?

GMT

The parties are — after MPs’ fairly courageous behavior — accepted by the protesters for now. But their ideologies and the differences between them are totally ignored. The only thing that matters is their degree of willingness to resist. The parties as such have no special demands at the moment, they are just echoing the protesters’ and the trade unions’ demands which include the rejection of the new administrative tribunals (introduced on the same day as the overtime law, with equally questionable methods), the reform of public media, and joining the European Prosecution Service. This latter demand is motivated by the unwillingness of the Hungarian prosecutors, led by one of Mr Orbán’s main allies, Dr Péter Polt, to investigate the country’s many flagrant and scandalous corruption cases.

Jobbik is now a rather conservative party and it seems they have shed the last vestiges of their fascist past and are now considerably more moderate than Viktor Orbán’s governing Fidesz (which is not a party but a combination of the state apparatus and an informal but highly centralized propaganda machine without members or inner life). The “liberal left” does not appear as an independent force: the opposition is united behind the trade unions and the students (for the moment), the whole picture is ideologically fuzzy. But it seems to be led by a leftish dynamic that does not dare to speak its name. Still, red flags have appeared on protests for the first time. This has driven the official media crazy, but they weren’t opposed by those in revolt.

The trade unions have scarcely mobilized; on the contrary, they had been mobilized by the demonstrators, and — to date — have responded very well. They have formed strike committees and are debating their options, as labor’s rights to protest are terribly restricted anyway, especially where public services (for example, on the railways) are concerned. The union leadership had announced that if Hungary’s docile president (one Mr János Áder) signs the law (which is needed for it to become valid) it could declare a general strike, and on Thursday, December 20 Áder did indeed do this.

The strongest unions are the chemical and the railway workers, public employees, teachers, and auto workers, but the working class is unorganized: the five national trade union confederations total about 100,000 members [in a country of 9 million]. But a truly important strike will have to be a wildcat one, spreading by unofficial means. After the bitter disappointments of the last fifteen years, electoral politics is on the back burner; nobody seems to be interested in this any longer. The diverse factions of the ruling class appear, all of a sudden, rather irrelevant: this is a matter of “us” and “them.”

DB

What motivated the legislation, and which forces supported its passing?

GMT

There are labor shortages because of the mass emigration — indeed, mass flight — from Hungary [around 600,000 Hungarians work abroad; the national population is under 10 million, having fallen by 1 million since the late 1980s]. This is also a classic wage-cutting measure: the employers would be able to pay for overtime after a three-year delay, if they wished, and with the present rate of inflation, this will allow them seriously to reduce their outgoings. Interestingly, the employers’ organizations — especially the German car manufacturers — have said that they had no interest in the measure and no wish to see it implemented. They think it would create more labor trouble than it will provide them with labor. It is a classically arrogant and anti-popular piece of legislation by a quasi-dictatorship that wants to resolve everything by administrative fiat.

Such is the characteristic of fascist and post-fascist regimes: the primacy of politics, the triumph of the will. In such regimes, power may be exercised in the interest of the capitalist class, but not by the capitalist class. Edicts by the supreme leader are replacing governance by bourgeois consent. Open disdain for the people, for the misera plebs contribuens — the humble tax-paying mob — is paramount, here.

Mr Orbán apparently believes that racist propaganda (and the very real discrimination against the Roma people) trumps everything else. He was successful in this for five years or so, but it does not seem set to last forever. What I have called “post-fascism” and “ethnicism” is not addressed directly by the present protests (although the far-right state media presents this as a “pro-immigrant” movement). But it seems ineffectual at the present juncture.

DB

It was reported on Wednesday that police in the northeast of the country had publicly demanded the back payment of their own overtime, but not associated themselves with the protests. What possibility is there of this discontent spreading to parts of the state apparatus itself? What is the reaction in state media?

GMT

The police are known to be dissatisfied with their social conditions (they are the most plagued by overtime and the new regulations are putting an unbearable burden onto their shoulders). Many are said to privately sympathize with the protesters, but this is a military organization — it is disciplined and obedient.

The state apparatus has been repeatedly purged, tens of thousands of civil servants have been made redundant without the slightest explanation, and experts are everywhere replaced by poorly qualified far-right loyalists (the government is also trying to extend this to the universities, research institutes, and cultural institutions). But younger employees either joining the private sector or emigrating (there are no doctors and nurses in the hospitals, there are no schoolteachers, especially in the provinces, and there are no engineers in the factories).

As for the state media — and this means almost all media, openly or covertly — they have succumbed to totalitarian paranoia: everything is the result of a foreign-inspired conspiracy, trying to undermine our white Christian and Gentile manhood. The protests are supposedly caused by “cultural Marxists,” feminist “gender fascists,” “cosmopolitan globalizers,” and by the “gay lobby,” not to mention the forces of “mongrelization” who import Muslims to eviscerate nationhood, Magyardom [“Hungarianness”], and whatnot.

DB

Government sources have unsurprisingly cast the demonstrations as small and elite-driven by the likes of George Soros, while also stressing the unpopularity of the opposition parties, crushed in the elections in April. How would you estimate the protests’ depth of public support? What attitude have liberal forces taken?

GMT

You are too polite. Instead of “elite” read Jews or Judaeo-Masonic-Illuminati plot. The official media are calling the workers “the servants of Soros” — pitiful, really. The opposition parties, as I said before, do not count right now. As for public support, polls tell us that 83 percent of the population are against the Overtime Act, which is widely called “the slave law.” The liberal forces — by which we must mean a few journalists — are wholeheartedly behind the protests, just like the anti-Orbán conservatives.

DB

Orbán has not publicly responded to the protests. What is his strategy, here? How strong is his position within his own party and government?

GMT

Orbán did not say a single solitary word since the beginning of the protests. He does not want to be associated with anything that might prove too unpopular next week, although his political instincts are savagely repressive. He is the best enemy of the Hungarian people: astute, intelligent, cunning, patient, diligent, and ruthless. He is respected and loathed. In his “party” — no movement, no members, just apparatchiks — he is of course immensely respected, and he also pays well.

Orbán is one of the richest men in Europe (through middlemen and dummy companies; his press conglomerate numbers 176 media outlets in a small country of 9 million people). He is a redoubtable adversary, but his luck seems to be running out. He has made enormous mistakes: people don’t give a fig about parliament, but his open and public law-breaking is a bit too much, as is flaunting his family’s luxurious existence, and his flunkeys buying up ducal palaces. His moving his office to the Royal Castle on Buda Hill may prove a little over the top.

The slanders against the protesters and the frenzied name-calling by the propaganda Abteilung [German for “department”] may have been an error. The whole country feels that it has been dissed. Something will have to give.

End Mark

About the Author

G. M. Tamás is a visiting professor at the Central European University, Budapest and a visiting fellow at the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, Vienna.

About the Interviewer

David Broder is a historian of French and Italian communism. He is currently writing a book on the crisis of Italian democracy in the post-Cold War period.

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