Is Hungary in a Crisis?

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By Ferenc Almássy.

Hungary – A series of demonstrations have taken place in Hungary opposing its conservative Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán. Its trigger was a vote in Parliament approving changes to the labor laws. Both the Hungarian and the foreign media who are typically hostile toward the illiberal Prime Minister and his party, Fidesz, have painted a terrible portrait of the situation. The progressive, liberal, and socialist opposition radicalized its discourse and actions, and they have carried out numerous agitprop operations. Let us summarize the facts:

1 / About the (in)famous “slavery law”

On December 12, 2018, the Hungarian Parliament, a bit more than two-thirds of which is currently held by Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, voted in favor of an amendment to the existing Labor Law, which increased by approximately one-third the amount of overtime that an employer can ask his employees to work. We have already published a short article on this topic here.

Here comes the first manipulation of the figures: those who are calling this law a “slavery law” claim that this amendment authorizes an increase from 250 to 400 hours of overtime annually per employee and staggered compensatory salary payments over three years, resulting in unpaid overtime. This is fake news. First of all, the number of overtime hours that an employer can demand from his employees varies according to one’s occupation. Thus, not all (most won’t, actually) of those who were affected by the annual 250 hours of overtime will be affected by the increase. This higher level only concerns 10 to 15% of the workforce (mainly civil servants and irregular workers, such as those in some factories who work according to flexible hours). For many small- and medium-sized companies, like some subcontractors of large German automobile factories who are in high demand, it is a relief: there will be no more need to tamper with accounting to work on Saturdays, for example.

As pointed out by the only Left-wing party in Hungary that has not converted to liberalism, namely the Munkáspárt (or Workers’ Party, the heir to the old Communist Party), the cult of growth and the market economy necessitates this kind of law. One can only agree with them on that point. Hungary is a country with a low birthrate (1.45); which is suffering from a brain drain imposed by Western Europe, being a peripheral country; which refuses to accept immigration; which has a national unemployment rate of only 3.6%; and where wages are steadily increasing (the beginning of 2019 saw an 8% increase in the minimum wage). Thus, Hungary can only pursue ever-increasing growth (Hungary’s GDP is estimated to have grown by 4.3% in 2018) by increasing its employees’ work hours, one way or another. This is what Austria has already done, and Russia, too, has taken a similar step with its pension reform.

But this should be put into perspective: the statistics are clear, and we are far from the dark picture that the opposition has drawn. On average, a Hungarian employee works 31.2 extra hours a year. We are thus very far not only from 400 hours, but even from the previous limit of 250. It is easy to see that this amendment is essentially aimed to meet the needs of certain professions, as described above, despite the fact that the entire government denies that this amendment is aimed at reducing illegal employment arrangements and moonlighting. As for the three-year period for the payment of overtime, this is also false. The amendment to the law actually allows collective agreements to increase the period during which irregular work can be compensated from 12 to 36 months.

Here is an example: an increased influx of orders into a factory requires it to increase its employees’ work-hours. In the context of a collective agreement, employees might be required to work 50 hours during one week, instead of the standard 40. However, in another week, the same employees might only be asked to work 30 hours, to compensate for this. The issue is that over the defined period (under the amendment, now 36 months), the number of hours worked must remain at the equivalent of 40 hours per week. Thus, this is not strictly speaking overtime. The difference lies in the fact that, for those employees affected who are required to work irregular hours as given in the example above, if overtime is worked during the time period defined by the collective agreement, they will only be counted up at the end of the given interval – which is now 36 months instead of 12. And for the vast majority of employees, overtime salary is always paid monthly.

The astute observer will also note that this amendment actually guarantees more days of rest for those workers who are required to work irregular hours, and also that the opposition which has dubbed this adjustment the “slavery law” is made up of the very same people and parties – including Jobbik – which fought against, and eventually defeated, Fidesz’s 2015 law which greatly limited the number of establishments which could ask their employees to work on Sundays. On that occasion, the opposition was fighting to allow the people to work more, and whenever they wanted.

One thing is clear in all of this and should be noted: the trade unions in Hungary are weak and helpless. After having been annihilated under Communism, the unions have not been able to gain influence since the regime change of the 1980s.

2 / The liberal opposition’s survival strategy: manipulative operations and agitprop

After 8 years of rule by the liberal Left, Viktor Orbán returned to power in 2010. He was reelected in 2014 and again in 2018. Each time he won about 50% of the votes, and each time he received a constitutional majority of two-thirds within Hungary’s unicameral parliament.

Until 2015, the parliamentary opposition was composed of the liberal Left (consisting of several parties, such as the MSZP, the Hungarian Socialist Party) and the radical Right (Jobbik). But the emergence of the “migrant crisis,” followed by Orbán’s firm and radical reaction to massive and uncontrolled immigration into Hungary, pulled the rug out from under Jobbik’s feet, forcing the latter to seek normalization and moderation in the eyes of the public in order to win votes from the Left. After many internal conflicts and the departure of large numbers of its original activists and cadres, Jobbik is now a party that can be classed, without exaggeration, among the liberal centrist parties: calling upon the EU to take action against the national government, taking Atlanticist positions, defending the “gay pride march,” speaking of the need for a technocratic government, supporting the idea of Hungary joining the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, marching in the streets alongside groups supported by the Soros organizations, and so on.

Since the withdrawal of the former President of the liberal Green party, the LMP, András Schiffer, from politics, the remainder of the liberal-Left opposition has had no figure capable of uniting the opposition and seriously challenging Viktor Orbán – and it has no common program, either. The only thing that the various elements of Hungary’s liberal opposition “losing machine” can agree upon is the rejection of Orbanism.

And it is precisely this point which forms the sole basis of the opposition’s rhetoric. Because this opposition has no chance of overcoming Orbán’s popularity, and because it is losing momentum in its domination of the media (more people are still watching the opposition’s media, but the Fidesz-friendly media has gradually narrowed the gap to gain nearly half the audience), the opposition claims that Hungary is undergoing the “end of freedom of the press” and the “end of free speech.” Only one option remains for them: to try to sabotage social stability, thus harming Orbán’s government’s reputation and stability.

This strategy was put in place in tandem with Orbán’s more virulent attacks on George Soros’ globalist networks. Before the April 2018 election, the liberal opposition was already showing signs of change: they gradually abandoned the realm of politics (in the fourth part, we will return to Fidesz’s role in this evolution), becoming more and more interested in agitprop and image remaking operations, relying on the networks of the sympathetic media in Hungary and around the world, as well as on social media, to disseminate their message.

We see it today in the tsunami of biased and inaccurate articles in favor of the protesters that have been appearing in the liberal press in both Hungary and the West. Demonstrations of only two thousand militants are described as “popular fronts,” and the use of tear gas against protesters who are assaulting and throwing bottles at police officers is labelled “police oppression,” while at the same time the actions of the police in the French Republic does not interest this same liberal media in the slightest. According to these institutions, the protest marches in Hungary amount to nothing less than an indication of “the Hungarian population’s exasperation.”

The opposition has created a five-point list of demands. (After they were prevented from announcing them on the air during their attempt to force their way into the broadcasting booth of the public television station, they were able to proclaim, “These five points scare the regime!”) They are:

* the withdrawal of the amendment to the labor law
* less overtime for the police
* the establishment of independent courts
* Hungary must join the European Public Prosecutor’s Office
* an independent public television station

From their perspective, the demand for the withdrawal of the amendment is logical. The demand regarding the police is all about trying to win people’s support by pandering to their interests, and is aimed at giving the impression that they are not opposed to law enforcement. But it is the latter three points which are the most important ones.

The liberal narrative repeats ad nauseam that the courts and the public media are not independent. In 2011, Viktor Orbán, inspired by what was and still is the legislation in the French Republic and in Germany, reformed the public service. As in the West, the main public service executives are chosen by the government. And as in all countries, the public media becomes the voice of the government in power. In the case of the Justice Department, Orbán’s reforms sought to eliminate or limit the untouchability of the “red judges,” some of whom had been in place since the Communist era and who answered to no one but their peers. This is the so-called “rule of law” that the progressive opposition claims to favor, with the domination of this clique of judges going against democratic principles. The demand to join the European Public Prosecutor’s Office is also logical, given that these groups want to give more power to Brussels and diminish national sovereignty. And as for the “independent” station, this word is always synonymous with “liberal” in the minds of the liberal opposition.

Their strategy is clear: to engage in an image remaking campaign. The media is the only area in which the progressive opposition retains an advantage over Viktor Orbán’s government today, and they know that this is the only means by which they can survive in the public arena. Is this their swan song, or a fresh start? Only time will tell.

3 / Concrete examples of guerrilla agitprop

Since the beginning of the series of demonstrations, the cadres of the liberal opposition parties and the activists of the anti-Orbán NGO networks have begun using techniques that have rarely been seen in Hungary before now. This has raised the level of tension in society and given their actions disproportionate weight in the press.

Among these techniques, we have seen violent provocations against the police in a deliberate effort to force them to use tear gas or arrest demonstrators in front of the cameras. The opposition deputies who have been participating in these events have also made use of clearly identifiable methods. As parliamentarians, Hungarian MPs have the right to access public television buildings. However, they can obviously not force themselves onto the sets, especially during live broadcasts. But this is precisely what they tried to do, causing them to be stopped by the building’s security guards. But this didn’t stop these same MPs, with mobile phones in their hands, from claiming the victim narrative.

MP Ákos Hadházy of the LMP fell to the floor as the guards tried to escort him from the building. It is this image that has been circulating, suggesting that the MP was abused and then thrown to the ground:

Current MP and former President of the LMP, Bernadett Szél – who received training from the United States Department of State last autumn – threatened the building’s security before being thrown out, exaggeratedly shouting and yelling (watch from 1:00 to 2:00):

At the same time, the MSZP MP Ildikó Bangóné was busted: video emerged which showed her speaking to a colleague who was filming her in the building, saying that “it will be a f* strong image if we lay down on the floor with our faces down and our hands behind our necks.” A few minutes later, along with other MPs, she was indeed filmed lying on the floor, face down, hands behind her neck, dramatically pleading, “I’m so shocked! My children will see this footage…” (subtitles in Hungarian and English):

Meanwhile, the MSZP MP Ágnes Kunhalmi ran into a door, which was probably the least successful victimization operation of the day:

Finally, the Left-liberal MP from the DK, Ágnes Vadai, also went to great lengths to appear like a victim in front of the cameras:

These examples illustrate the manipulation strategy that is being enacted by the opposition, and their desire to create martyrs, as they are facing an establishment that is certainly very harsh in its words against them, but which at the same time is extremely permissive regarding their freedom of speech and action. This permissiveness is more or less deftly used by the opposition’s deputies.

As for the Hungarian police, they have shown remarkable restraint and professionalism. This is so for two reasons. The first is the trauma of the police violence that took place during the 2006 riots, when Left-liberal Ferenc Gyurcsány, now of the DK but then in the MSZP, was Prime Minister. Once Fidesz returned to power in 2010, the remembrance of Gyurcsány’s police repression pressured them to enact deep reforms in the police force. Every officer’s identification number must be clearly visible, all police operations are filmed, and what is more, they can be filmed by anyone. The other reason is that the government knows very well that the provocateurs are hoping for only one thing: that the police respond forcefully, providing them with images that will be useful to support their narrative about the Hungarian “police state.”

On the other hand, it is likely that legal sanctions will be filed against the agitators, including those foreigners who are involved. Time will tell how this situation will play out.

To conclude this section, it is important to highlight the ironic attempt of the Hungarian liberal opposition to exploit the Yellow Vests movement for their own ends. It is a stillborn effort, as the Hungarian demonstrators having nothing in common with the French protesters. Indeed, sociologically and politically, the two groups are opposed. On the one hand, the Yellow Vests are essentially made up of the people of the so-called “peripheral France,” consisting primarily of people from outside the major cities, as conceptualized by the French geographer Christophe Guilluy; in Hungary, the people who are demonstrating are mostly from the urban centers. In France, it is the middle classes and workers who are demonstrating, independently of any party, union, or organization, and they are repeatedly denouncing the EU. In Hungary, they consist of activists working for NGOs and pro-EU opposition parties who are close in ideology to Emmanuel Macron, as well as students and some sympathizers from the general population. Also, the numbers and ability to mobilize speak for themselves. While in France, 75% of the population supports the Yellow Vests despite the violence, in Hungary, 80% of the population rejects the violent actions of the protesters. And on Sunday, December 16, an anti-Orbán demonstration which sought to unite the opposition brought together between 10,000 and 15,000 people – of whom only 3,000 at most went on to the public television building for the actions there. On January 5, the “huge demonstration” gathered no more than 10,000 people.

Screenshot of aerial image of the procession of demonstrators marching towards the headquarters of public television MTVA, on December 16, 2018, in Budapest. Image: Index.hu

4 / What responsibility does Orbán’s government share for this situation?

It would be dishonest and dangerous to deny that there is genuine resentment against the government in Hungary. As in any country, segments of the population and some interest groups are not being addressed by the government’s policies. And Viktor Orbán has never said that he would govern without making any waves. He has firmly asserted his illiberal ideology and directly and publicly opposes the liberal elites, which have fallen from power in Hungary but are still dominant in the EU and throughout the Western world. The crisis of the liberal model of government has led to Trump, Brexit, the rise of the populist government in Italy, and the Yellow Vests in France. Before all of this, Orbán took the lead and began to transform the country out of the tradition of Western political liberalism. This is not an easy task, and is provoking very serious tensions on the political level, leading to two camps that are increasingly irreconcilable, separated by a dividing line lying between liberals and illiberals, as defined by Orbán in 2014.

The tense situation in Hungary is mainly due to the following factors:

1* The open opposition to the networks of George Soros, who has become the figurehead of the liberal and progressive, open borders, pro-LGBT, and cosmopolitan world. These networks, made up of agitprop professionals, are playing some of their newest cards against the Hungarian government, notably by increasing tensions between different groups in society in order to weaken and destabilize the establishment.

2* More generally, the government’s illiberal policies. In practice, it consists of trying to balance out or even remove the influence of progressive circles. In the justice system, this means putting an end to a system where the judges constitute a club still strongly marked by the extreme Left which is untouchable and unaccountable for its failures in terms of legitimately making use of its political power. In the press, it aims to put an end to the absolute domination of liberalism in the media; Orbán’s close friends have created or purchased media organs in order to narrow the gap between the overwhelming monopoly of the anti-Orbán media and those who support the strongman of Budapest. Also, Hungarian public television today leaves little room for the opposition’s representatives. And in the field of culture, it means the implementation of the “cultural counter-revolution” that was announced two years ago: after decades of government passivity regarding the cultural community in the name of anti-authoritarianism and non-interventionist reflexes, allowing it to be monopolized by liberals and the extreme Left, Orbán announced in 2016 that he wanted to act in favor of aiding conservative and patriotic artists. As such, public funding is slowly starting to migrate from one pole to the other.

3* The existence of an opposition that has been torn asunder and lacks a major figure, rendering it unable to challenge Viktor Orbán in the polls. The biggest success of the so-called united opposition was to win a municipal by-election a few weeks before the national parliamentary elections of April 2018, when all the opposition parties united behind an officially independent candidate and won the Mayor’s seat in Hódmezővásárhely, a town of 44,000 citizens. To achieve this unity, which they consider necessary for electoral success, the liberal opposition is looking for hot-button issues that will bring it together. The first sign of it was the demonstration against the “Internet tax” in 2014, and it was accelerated in 2018 after their success in Hódmezővásárhely. The events of recent weeks are also part of this process. The opposition’s aim is to exacerbate the tensions more and more, hopefully aggravating their fracture with Orbanism to justify unification, making it seem inevitable and essential in the eyes of all their constituents. This is why the opposition shouts “anyone but Orbán” and calls for a technocratic government, while Orbán’s supporters regard these forces as anti-national, almost as if these people were not Hungarians – especially because they call on foreign forces, such as Brussels and Soros, to aid them against the legitimately elected government.

4* The somewhat negative image of Fidesz that is being exploited and distorted by the opposition media. The arrogance of some of Fidesz’s cadres towards the opposition, the attitude of some among the nouveau riche who are close to the corridors of government, and endless accusations of corruption in the opposition’s media all fuel the anti-Orbán hatred. But one could also mention Fidesz’s almost systematic refusal to vote on the opposition parties’ bills; If, however, one of their ideas suits their agenda, Fidesz will write their own proposal along the same lines and then vote it into law.

5* Heavy government communications, which are sometimes a bit clumsy. The government continually produces repetitive and rather simplistic campaigns against mass immigration, against Soros, against the dictates of Brussels, and so on, which eventually irritate parts of the population, while not highlighting its actual economic and social successes – with the exception of its family policy, which is unique in Europe and which they communicate relatively well. In addition, Fidesz sometimes plays with the spirit of the laws, carrying out government campaigns touting the results of their policies during the election period, which violates the spirit of fairness that the campaigns are supposed to be conducted within.

The succession of demonstrations and the aggravation of the disconnect between the two Hungarys is therefore neither something abnormal, nor something harmless. In the context of Viktor Orbán’s policy of illiberalism and the powerlessness of the liberal and progressive opposition, it is to be expected that this fracture will worsen over time. Everything seems to indicate that the establishment will seek to further demonize an opposition that is becoming more and more radical, and even violent. In recent weeks, several Fidesz offices, as well as those of its ally, the KDNP (Christian Democratic People’s Party), were attacked, with windows and doors being broken, written upon, or covered in excrement. Likewise, journalists were intimidated, and many assaults took place during the demonstrations – which is a rarity in typically quiet, polite, and order-loving Hungary. Everything also seems to indicate that the opposition will seek to mobilize its troops more and more in the framework of permanent guerrilla street activism, raising the social temperature in order to melt the opposition into a single bloc and sabotage the achievements, the peace and prosperity, that have been brought about by the Orbán government. And this is a worrying prospect for Hungary.

Cover photo: Horváth Péter Gyula