Hungary Anti-Orban Protests Surge as Unions Threaten Strike

(Bloomberg) -- Hungarian anti-government demonstrations showed no sign of abating after almost a month of rallies that have snowballed from workers’ demands to scrap a law on more overtime hours to a call for the end of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s illiberal rule.

After a holiday lull, thousands of people gathered in Budapest on Saturday to resume the most sustained protest wave against Orban, whose disdain for liberal democracy has made him an icon of nationalist political forces across Europe. He has also angered labor unions, which are considering going on strike unless his government repeals what they’ve branded as the "slave law" because it boosts the amount of overtime employers can demand.

While Saturday’s demonstration appeared to be the biggest yet in a series of protests in the past month that have united a previously weak and divided opposition, Orban’s Fidesz party remains Hungary’s most popular political group by far. Initial polls showed that almost a month of rallies have barely dented Fidesz’s lead, with its support at about the same level as that of the opposition combined.

“I came here to show my children that there’s such a thing as democracy and we can’t just give it up,” said Julia Nagy, an economist and a mother of three.

With parliament dominated by Orban’s lawmakers, the opposition has said they have no choice but to protest what they consider to be the 55-year-old leader’s increasingly authoritarian tilt.

In mid-December, the same day the overtime law was approved, legislators brought a newly created top court under government oversight. Weeks earlier, hundreds of private media outlets were pooled under a foundation run by pro-Orban trustees, creating, alongside state media, one of the most powerful propaganda tools in the European Union.

And late last year, Central European University, founded by the billionaire-philanthropist George Soros to train democratic leaders in ex-communist eastern Europe, said it had been forced to leave Hungary after the government tightened rules on universities.

Orban, for his part, has vowed to defeat the protests with patience and resolve. He has also rejected efforts to roll back his consolidation of power, which prompted the European Parliament to recommend an EU probe, citing the risk to the rule of law.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.