Angry protests have erupted on the streets of Budapest against the right wing Hungarian government’s draconian new labour law.
People have come out in the capital for three consecutive nights since Wednesday—and a further protest was planned for this Sunday.
They have been remarkable not because of their size—at most, just a few thousand people have been involved. But their anger, militancy and danger to the government reflects a far wider discontent in the country.
There have been far larger mobilisations since Viktor Orban’s right wing Fidesz party was elected in 2010. All of these demonstrations and marches have been largely ritualistic and have passed off peacefully.
The demonstrations this week have sought to disrupt traffic. Protesters have occupied the two major bridges across the Danube on either side of the parliament building and Oktogon, which is the rough equivalent of Oxford Circus.
And protesters have resisted cops armed with tear gas and pepper spray with firecrackers and smoke grenades. The police effectively lost control over the city centre and some of the main tourist areas for hours.
All of this is unprecedented in recent times.
Some of the protesters’ tactics have been inspired and encouraged by the Yellow Vest movement in France and the Extinction Rebellion direct actions in London.
One of the most important organisations calling the protests has been the Student Trade Union, Hallgatoi Szakszervezet. It’s made of leftists who support a much more egalitarian society and are opposed to various aspects of capitalism.
Another organisation, Hungarian Momentum, has also been doing its best to claim credit. It’s also made up younger people who are socially liberal—such as supporting LGBT+ rights—but also economically liberal and support the EU and globalised capitalism.
The fascist Jobbik Party have had little involvement so far, but have been threatening to try to mobilise their younger members to take part.
The trigger for these demonstrations is a new labour law that allows bosses to make workers work 400 hours overtime per year. It also gives bosses the right to reduce workers’ hours at less busy times in order to avoid paying overtime rates.
Orban wants to make Hungary more attractive to foreign and domestic investment by creating an even more flexible, low wage economy.
But most important reason is that German multinational corporations are complaining of labour shortages in their Hungarian operations. One of the main reasons for these labour shortages is, ironically, because the Orban government has sought to eliminate immigration to Hungary from outside the European Union (EU).
No one knows how the situation is going to develop, but the government must be worried.
Fidesz increased their majority in the recent general election by running a rabidly racist, antisemitic campaign. They successfully persuaded more than 40 percent of the population that the main threat came from shadowy financiers seeking to flood the country with migrants.
And by doing so deflecting people from blaming the incumbent government for poor wages, insecure jobs and declining health and education services.
But Fidesz supporters weren’t signing up to draconian labour laws on behalf of foreign multinationals which directly and adversely affected their pay and conditions. It can only be arrogance following the election victory that encouraged Orban to pursue this policy.
So there is the potential for the protests to reach into much larger numbers of people, beyond radical students into large parts of the Hungarian working class. If this were to happen, Orban would really be in very serious trouble.