Hungary’s Orban Suffers for His Overconfidence

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has pushed through a number of unpopular laws that have sparked mass protests and, ominously, some violence. The autocratic leader is pushing the envelope with his brinkmanship; unless he takes a step back, he risks losing his dominance.

Since his Fidesz party won a constitutional majority in April and installed him as prime minister for a third consecutive term, Orban has moved to tighten his grip on the country. In recent weeks, he has mounted a rapid assault on the last remaining curbs on his power.

Late last month, more than 400 news outlets founded or acquired by Orban’s allies were consolidated into a non-profit organization called the Central European Press and Media Foundation. The prime minister has exempted this group from regulatory scrutiny, deeming it to be “strategic.”

Earlier this month, the Central European University, founded by George Soros, announced it would decamp for Vienna after years of fighting to stay in Budapest. And last week, parliament passed a law stripping the Supreme Court of authority over administrative disputes — including those involving elections, corruption and police abuses — and set up a separate body overseen by the justice minister to handle these matters.

Orban has treated the opposition politicians, journalists and activists who have protested these measures with contempt. He has long known they weren’t numerous or determined enough to cause trouble. But this time, he may have committed a tactical error: Last week, Fidesz rammed through new labor laws, allowing employers to demand as many as 400 hours of overtime a year, instead of the current 250, and delay payment for them for up to three years instead of one. 

Ostensibly, the measure is meant to alleviate the country’s labor shortage, and workers will have the option to reject the extra hours. But unions have pointed out that employers have enough levers to coerce employees into agreeing.

Some 3,000 people began to protest the “slave laws” immediately after they were passed on Dec. 12. As a group of opposition legislators tried to get onto state TV to make their case on Sunday, a crowd of between 2,000 and 10,000, according to different estimates, descended on the television station in Budapest.

Denied an appearance before the cameras, the politicians staged a sit-in. A Facebook Live broadcast of one of them being forcibly removed by security went viral. At the time of writing, the two sides are locked in a stalemate — which is being live-tweeted by European Parliament Member Istvan Ujhelyi.

In recent years, Hungarians have usually been slow to protest and relatively non-violent when they do. Even after the fall of Communism, the country saw fewer protests than Poland or East Germany. When Hungarians do get angry, though, the authorities have a hard time calming them down.

In 2014, Orban had to retreat from imposing an internet tax after persistent demonstrations. There’s another more troubling precedent for the politician: In 2006, the state television center was the stage of the rallies that nearly toppled the government of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany. 

Those protests, triggered by a leaked recording in which Gyurcsany admitted his government had done nothing useful during its four-year tenure, descended into violence when the demonstrators stormed the TV center to broadcast their demands and briefly seized it before police returned with reinforcements. Though Gyurcsany hung on as prime minister until 2009, it was only a matter of time before Fidesz, then the main opposition party, would take power, which it did in 2010.

Orban has been successful in fending off attempts by European Union officials to constrain his authoritarian impulses. Despite all the criticism, Fidesz remains a member of the European Parliament’s biggest faction, the center-right European People’s Party. Suppressing domestic protest against laws that infringe directly on regular citizens’ lives is a more difficult undertaking, even in relatively docile Hungary. Orban may be overestimating his ability to fight battles on several fronts at once.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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