The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hungarians are protesting their increasingly autocratic government. Here’s why it matters.

Anti-government demonstrators carry a banner that says “We protest against the slave bill” as they march in front of the parliament building in Budapest on Jan. 5. (Marton Monus/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Thousands of Hungarians turned out again to protest in Budapest and other cities Saturday, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. This makes nearly one month of protests since Hungary’s parliament approved a new law on overtime work Dec. 12.

Dubbed the “slave law” by its opponents, the law increases the amount of overtime employers can ask of their employees, from 250 to 400 hours per year. Companies have up to three years to pay the added wages. The law does not require employees to work overtime — but in a country where many workers fear losing their jobs, they may feel obligated to accept management’s request.

For the opposition, the new labor law and an accompanying law reforming the judiciary are the last straw in a long string of efforts by Orbán’s ruling party, Fidesz, to dismantle the liberal democratic state and seize power. The “slave law” may have sparked this round of protests, but protesters’ demands go beyond particular policies. There are calls for an independent judiciary and media — both of which have been drastically compromised by Fidesz.

Thus far, the demonstrations have not resulted in any policy reversals. But here’s why these protests suggest a new, deeper threat to Orbán and his right-wing populist party:

1. Protests are no longer just in the capital

Protests have occurred in several provincial cities, including a number of more conservative and quiescent locations. The government has dismissed these and other protests as inspired by foreign activists and an opposition frustrated by its unpopularity and impotence. Ordinary Hungarians might have believed the government when the demonstrations occurred largely in Budapest, a liberal bastion. The spread of protests outside Budapest makes the government’s claim increasingly hard to substantiate.

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Trade unions are now planning a Jan. 19 general strike, which has never happened before, to oppose the labor code changes. According to a nationwide representative poll conducted Dec. 13 to 19 by the Publicus Institute, 77 percent of Hungarian and 38 percent of Fidesz voters do not support the “slave law.” If protests spread to Fidesz’s rural strongholds, this would mark the first nationwide resistance to Fidesz’s policies and a potential clarion call for further mobilization.

2. Protesters are growing more confrontational

Hungary has seen sizable protests against Fidesz policies in the past. Tens of thousands poured into the streets to protest Fidesz’s new constitution in January 2012. Thousands more protested when the constitution was amended in 2013. But they did so lawfully.

Public passions now run hotter. On Dec. 17, opposition members of parliament were among the thousands of demonstrators at the headquarters of Hungarian state television. They entered the studios and attempted to publicize their list of demands. Security guards forcefully ejected them, in clear violation of the law.

Fidesz has treated the opposition — both within and outside parliament — with disdain but has rarely resorted to violence. This incident might be overreaction. But it also might represent an ominous new turn in the way the government treats opposition lawmakers. If so, Orbán will have vindicated the widespread suspicion of his regime.

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3. The opposition has become more unified

The labor issue has helped strengthen and unify the opposition to the Fidesz government. Since 2010, Fidesz has faced an opposition divided between left-wing liberal parties and radical right parties. With the recent exception of a provincial by-election, the two camps have been unable to put aside their differences. This has been a boon to Fidesz, which more often than not has been the most popular single party. Remarkably, even the current protest wave has not altered Fidesz’s relative popularity. According to the Publicus Institute poll conducted in December, in the midst of the protests, Fidesz’s popularity stands at only 23 percent. But that is still 14 percentage points higher than the next most popular party, the Hungarian Socialist Party.

Hungary’s gerrymandered electoral system means that even a united opposition with majority support is not guaranteed to win an election. And a divided opposition ensures future Fidesz dominance. It’s true that a Hungarian political coalition between leftist and far-right parties would be a strange sight. But if the “slave law” protest campaign further erodes Fidesz’s popularity and leads to lasting opposition cooperation, there is at least a possibility that Fidesz can be beaten at the ballot box. There is already a proposal for a joint opposition list against Fidesz in the upcoming elections to the European Parliament.

Jason Wittenberg is associate professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the co-author, most recently, of “Intimate Violence: Anti-Jewish Pogroms on the Eve of the Holocaust (Cornell University Press, 2018).