The first time I talked with Botond Doszpoly, in early April, he was running for a seat in the Hungarian parliament in the eastern city of Miskolc on the ticket of a small green party with the hopeful name Politics Can Be Different. Doszpoly, back then, was very sure of one thing: He wasn’t interested in cooperating with the Socialists, whom he called Hungary’s “biggest problem.”
But when I spoke with Doszpoly this week, his tune had changed. Now the biggest problem was getting people into the streets to protest Hungary’s authoritarian leader, Viktor Orbán. What’s happening in Hungary now, he said, shows that “guys can have a very different view of things but can go together to the street without wanting to eat each other.” And people have been in the street for the past week now—as many as 15,000 in Budapest, with smaller contingents in numerous cities all around Hungary.
A shift like Doszpoly’s is an example of why opposition leaders and activists are sensing new possibilities in Hungary, as a new protest movement seems to be building against Orbán and his Fidesz party. In Orbán’s “illiberal democracy,” as he proudly calls it, opposition parties are allowed to operate, but the system is transparently rigged against them. Building an illiberal democracy has been made easier for Orbán by infighting among the opposition parties, which is why any new sign of cooperation across parties makes observers of Hungary wonder if something big could be afoot.
The current protests erupted on December 12, when a group of parliamentarians from across the political spectrum tried to filibuster a legal change that opponents say would allow Fidesz to enhance its already-impressive manipulation of elections, as well as a bill that would increase from 250 to 400 the number of annual overtime hours businesses can “ask” their employees to work.
Critics have termed this second bill “the slave law,” and it seems to have galvanized Orbán’s opponents in a way nothing else could so far, in part because the government tried to sell the law by arguing that it would help relieve purported labor shortages in Hungary’s big auto factories. These factories are, truth be told, German auto factories located in Hungary, where the going rate for labor just happens to be significantly lower than it is in places like Bavaria. This has allowed some protesters to turn Orbán’s nationalism against him: He claims to defend Hungary, but he’s really making you work overtime for the Germans. “Rumors are spreading all around the country that this is the reason for the law,” Andras Pulai, a pollster with Publicus Research in Budapest, told me.
László Andor, an economist close to the Socialist Party and a former European Commissioner, told me that the slave law, an attempt to deal with a labor shortage by getting the current labor force to work more hours, is the logical outcome of Orbán’s broken labor-market policies, which have featured anti-union measures that have “facilitated wage stagnation and boosted emigration.” Andor thinks the slave law runs afoul of the EU Working Time Directive anyway, but rather than waiting to get it overturned in court, “apparently for trade unions, like for many others in Hungary, this was the last drop in the glass, and anti-Orbán emotions have erupted.”
Those emotions have demonstrators feeling excited but also unsure that they can successfully keep the government under pressure. Ambrus Halász, an activist and former communications director for Politics Can Be Different, told me that “the most important thing” about the rallies he attended in Budapest was that the protesters “accepted all the speakers: There were liberals, greens, conservatives, socialists, and people were applauding for the [far-right] Jobbik speaker as well, which couldn’t have happened one or two years ago.” For the first time, the main thing was unity against Fidesz, but Halász said he was “afraid of the opposition parties’ ability to keep this topic alive.”
Keeping it alive might depend on drawing the previously apathetic into the streets. Whether that is happening is not clear yet. Doszpoly, in Miskolc, told me he doesn’t think he’s seeing anybody beyond the hard-core base of activists, the true believers who always show up. But many observers have noted their surprise that protests, after starting in Budapest, have also broken out in a number of provincial cities. Adam Sanyo, a data analyst and opposition activist based in Budapest, told me that even his conservative hometown, the eastern city of Debrecen, a Fidesz stronghold, had seen demonstrations and that some of his friends “who have never been ‘political’ have been getting in touch asking [him] for tips about protests, like how to deal with tear gas.” (Sanyo said he tells the novitiates “to stay in the back” their first few times on the street.)
Pulai, the pollster, argues that “what’s most important is that the public see unity and that Orbán has to respond, which might change the attitude of people watching,” even if they don’t participate. He tells me “the Hungarian opposition has reached a milestone because the voters are listening to them now, adding to the credibility of these leaders.”
To understand why these protests could be a milestone, it’s important to know a bit about how Hungary got into this mess in the first place. In fact, the last time public anger really boiled over in the country was in 2006, but the object of that anger was the then-ruling Socialist Party, whose leader, Ferenc Gyurcsány, was recorded telling a party meeting in a rambling, unhinged, and profanity-laced speech that of course he had lied about the country’s real economic condition in order to stay in office. As protests have now broken out against “the slave law,” back then they broke out over what everyone in Hungary calls “the lie speech.” The lie speech destroyed the credibility of the left in Hungary, and the global financial crisis two years later, during the government of Gyurcsány’s successor, the charisma-poor technocrat Gordon Bajnai, didn’t exactly help.
Orbán’s Fidesz party was the beneficiary of all this, coming back into power after the 2010 elections. So far, so good—but from that point on, Fidesz slowly but surely chipped away at the institutional foundations of democracy to make it nearly impossible for it ever again to be voted out of office. Orbán’s project was made all the easier by the opposition’s very obliging tendency to remain both fractured and unstable, with no clear, strong leaders emerging anywhere else on the political spectrum. The current protest movement still hasn’t produced a charismatic single figure for opponents of Fidesz to rally around.
This recent history has been interlaced with a deeper skepticism in Hungary about democracy and a suspicion that maybe not much good really comes of it anyway. I asked Gergely Karácsony, the Dialogue party candidate for prime minister in the last national election, about this. Karácsony had just given an important address, one day before the election, but had not said anything about the threat Fidesz poses to democracy. I asked him why he hadn’t. Karácsony replied: “You will never win votes in Hungary campaigning on democracy. Democratic periods in Hungary were always very short and followed by problems. And by 2010, democracy was perceived as a failure here.” Karácsony argued that his campaign needed to focus on concrete issues and social justice instead. Indeed, the so-called slave law has seemed to motivate the protesters more than the other bills at issue. After all, technical judicial matters can’t focus the mind the way extra overtime work can, in Hungary or any other country. But the shallowness of democratic experience in Hungary is clearly an important backdrop to Orbán’s project, and it’s hard to imagine a top-of-the-ticket politician in countries further west making these kinds of comments about democracy.
But Bernadett Szél, an independent member of parliament who was the prime-minister candidate for Politics Can Be Different in the last election, told me that the popular mood in Hungary might now be changing, that maybe Orbán has overreached this time. “They have two-thirds of the seats, but without having two-thirds of the votes,” she said, alluding to the egregious gerrymandering that has benefited Fidesz. “And people are starting to see that the game is rigged.”
Szél’s optimism is supported by the most recent poll, released December 20 by Publicus Research for the newspaper Népszava. Sixty-six percent of the respondents—and even 38 percent of Fidesz voters—said they supported the protesters.
More rallies are planned in the upcoming days, including a demonstration in Budapest on New Year’s Eve and labor walkouts in mid-January. Clearly, the opposition isn’t finished yet; but this also isn’t the first time Orbán has faced a challenge from the street. The 2014 protests against a tax on Internet usage were successful in getting the tax repealed, but did nothing to stop Orbán’s consolidation of power. Orbán has shown that he knows how to lose a battle while still winning the war.