In January 2019, Viktor Orbán’s government faced its biggest challenge in years, as thousands hit Hungary’s streets to protest against the so-called ‘Slave Law,’ a controversial legislative reform intended to tackle the country’s growing labor shortage. In the protests, observers noted, finally, the spark of a united opposition to the illiberal leader. But it remains to be seen whether the movement will fizzle out or go on to ignite lasting change.
The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators report for 2018 uncovered a worrying trend in several countries, including Hungary. The country was placed second-last of 41 countries in terms of quality of democracy, and the report stated it can no longer be considered a consolidated democracy – but even as democratic institutions declined, public confidence in the Hungarian government continued to grow. Eurobarometer results show that public trust in Hungary’s government rose from 21 percent in 2012 to 47 percent at the end of 2017.
The popularity of Orbán and his Fidesz party has been buoyed by his administration’s tight control over the information that reaches the public. According to the SGI report, in Hungary “media freedom exists only on paper, since more than 90 percent of media are controlled by the government, either directly, as in the case of the public media, or indirectly, as in the case of private media owned by Fidesz oligarchs.” The political opposition is kept weak and fragmented through low public financing and controversial registration procedures, and its access to the public was further limited in 2017, when Orbán’s government took steps to control political advertising on billboards, a form of public outreach that played a big part in the 2010 and 2014 election campaigns.
Orbán has used the government’s propaganda power to galvanize domestic support through the demonization of external enemies: migrants, Hungarian-American liberal philanthropist George Soros, and even the European Union, despite the contribution that EU funds have made and continue to make to Hungary’s economic recovery since the global economic crisis. But for Hungarians, anti-migrant sentiment appears to be more a rhetorical signifier of identity than a genuine active concern: In November 2018, only 6 percent of Hungarians named migration control as one of their top three worries for the country, as compared to 70 percent who cited healthcare, 55 percent who named financial/political corruption, and 52 percent who listed poverty and social inequality.
These domestic economic concerns go some way toward explaining Orbán’s enduring appeal, as well as the challenge he now faces. Hungary’s economic performance has strengthened substantially since the global crash. GDP growth for the third quarter of 2018 was 5 percent year-on-year, the second highest in the EU, and unemployment has fallen from a high of 11.8 percent in March 2010, the year in which Orbán was first elected, to 3.6 percent in November 2018. However, according to the SGI report, this growth is built on shaky foundations. To reduce unemployment, Hungary’s government introduced massive public works programs, which employed 4 percent of Hungary’s workforce in 2017 – but employment in these programs is generally low-skilled and poorly remunerated, and those who participate find it hard to transition to jobs in the broader labor market. Another factor in the drop in unemployment is the increased number of Hungarians who have left the country to work abroad; with wages significantly higher in other EU countries, as many as 600,000 Hungarians, or around 9 percent of the country’s potential workforce, have used their freedom of movement to find opportunities elsewhere. Meanwhile, Orbán’s anti-migrant crusade has meant that the shortfall cannot be made up by workers from abroad. In consequence, Hungary is facing a skills shortage, which drove salaries up from 2017 onward, as companies vied for qualified workers.
Protests spread beyond the capital
The ‘slave law,’ approved on December 12, 2018, was intended to be a fix. It allows businesses to require employees to work 400 hours of overtime per year, up from the previous 250 hours, and companies can delay payment for the added hours worked for up to three years. Its defenders say that workers have the right to refuse to work the extra hours, but with well-paid jobs at a premium, opponents say that many workers will feel they have no choice but to comply.
Protests began immediately. Fidesz sought to blame the usual suspects, saying that the “Soros network” had manufactured unrest to blacken Hungary’s image. But in a new departure for Hungary in recent years, the demonstrations quickly spread to areas beyond the capital. The visible facts on the ground make it harder for the government to sustain its official line through its overwhelming media control.
Controversial changes in Hungary’s election registration procedures before the 2014 elections helped to fragment the country’s opposition – in autumn 2017, there were as many as 219 registered parties – and until now, anti-Orbán forces have been unable to find a unifying cause. But all the major opposition parties, including the far right, have voiced support for the current protests, potentially paving the way for greater cooperation beyond this single issue.
Opinion polls in December 2018 gave Fidesz 23 percent of the vote, with its nearest rivals polling at only 9 percent each – but in the same poll, a full 50 percent answered “do not know” to the question of who they would vote for if the election were held tomorrow. Clearly, many votes are up for grabs from those who feel unrepresented by the current political system. If the opposition can come together to capitalize on the public mood and draw in alienated voters, Fidesz may find itself at last with a real fight on its hands. The local elections of October 2019 will be the next chance to find out.