BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Thousands of people marched in anti-government protests Friday in Budapest, upset over labor law changes, increasing corruption and limits on academic freedom under Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s nationalist government.
The protests, which started last week, have given the country’s fragmented opposition a chance to work together as they challenge Orban, who has led the country with increasing powers since 2010.
The satiric Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party hosted a downtown march Friday night in the Hungarian capital with speeches, chants and signs critical of Orban.
One sign said “I want to give birth to a stadium,” poking fun at two of Orban’s preoccupations: Increasing the nation’s birthrate and filling the country with white-elephant sports facilities.
Protesters gathered outside Parliament and marched to the offices of President Janos Ader in Buda Castle to rebuke him for signing the labor changes as well as other legislation creating a new court system under government control.
The new courts will hear most cases involving the state, from taxation issues to electoral disputes, so having them under government control creates a sharp conflict of interest and reduces their independence.
Since returning to power eight years ago, Orban has been reshaping Hungary. New laws governing the media and churches have been enacted while the state has an ever-increasing presence in all walks of life, from industry to the arts and sports.
With unorthodox policies, Orban’s governments have sought to centralize control and shore up the Hungarian economy, which a decade ago needed to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund. His Fidesz party remains popular, securing a third consecutive two-thirds majority in April.
Emboldened by his latest big majority in parliament, Orban has forced a Budapest-based university founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros to move most of its programs to Vienna. He retains his fiery rhetoric against migrants and has refused to join a new European Union public prosecutor’s office focusing on fraud and corruption.
However, the recent protests have invigorated the opposition.
The catalyst for the protests was a new labor code dubbed the “slave law” by critics and approved by lawmakers on Dec. 12. It would increase the number of overtime hours employers could ask workers to put in voluntarily, essentially bringing back a six-day work week, and allow overtime payments to remain unpaid for up to three years.
“I think the slave law is a spark, with the protest banner saying ‘We’ve had enough’ capturing it best,” said Csaba Toth of the Republikon Institute think tank.
On Monday, several opposition lawmakers were physically expelled from the state TV headquarters after spending the night in the building trying to get their demands read on air.
Akos Hadhazy, an independent lawmaker who was among those assaulted by security guards, said Hungary was now closer to becoming a dictatorship. Government officials, meanwhile, called on the opposition to respect the law.
Opposition lawmakers were silenced by parliamentary authorities during the labor law bill’s debate and government-party legislators swept aside in a single vote some 2,800 amendments to the bill.
The opposition also attempted to delay the vote by blocking access to the speaker’s podium and blowing whistles and sounding sirens during the vote, all to no avail.
“Whatever we try to do within the normal parliamentary framework — like presenting amendments or draft laws or debating in the committees — falls on deaf ears and everything is forcefully brushed aside,” said Timea Szabo, a lawmaker with the Dialogue party.
“We have reached the point where we simply have to resort to other means, within the frame of non-violence” she said.
Lawmakers and supporters from a wide range of parties — from the nationalist Jobbik party to the Socialist Party, as well as the new Momentum party and others — have been participating in the protests.
“For now it’s a fragile cooperation, but we are working to strengthen it,” Szabo said. “The mere fact that we have reached the point at the end of 2018 that we can cooperate with Jobbik on some issues is a great result. Our hope is that in the long term it can result in a new kind of cooperation.”
There have been few effective protests against Orban since 2010, although the government scrapped plans for a tax on internet usage after several rallies in 2014 by mostly students.
“There is an emerging unity of the opposition and you can also see the unions and the civil organizations working together. All that might result in something,” Toth said, noting that national elections aren’t scheduled until 2022. “Any attempt to go against the government starts with the opposition solidifying its own base.”
Hadhazy was confident that after a break for the holidays, enthusiasm among government critics would remain strong.
“These protests have shown that people are truly very dissatisfied … we are already now preparing for a large protest on January 5,” Hadhazy said.