#O1G – Anti-regime protests in Hungary

Can 2019 really be the year of resistance?

The short answer is: probably not.

For many people, the new labor code is the first undeniable reminder that they have no recourse left against the government if it chooses to hurt their most obvious interests. Forgive me for the reminder but the essence of authoritarianism is that power is not wielded in the interest of the citizen – but in the personal interest of the ruler. And power is a zero-sum game where any more room of maneuver the ruler is carving out for himself comes at the expense of your room of maneuver, your ability to control your own life. So whenever someone realizes that he has been affected disadvantageously – but he has no tools left to do something about it, it’s a critical point.

As the impact of this realization can cut both ways.

1) If the protest movement doesn’t achieve anything, it will entrench the sense of helplessness and push the population even deeper into apathy and resignation – a wager that has always worked for Orbán so far.

2) If it does achieve its goal, however, it would be the first instance when Orbán retreats from an existing piece of legislation due to active citizen resistance.

At this point it is impossible to say anything about the nature and impact of the so called “slave law” protests. It started last December with the ruling party pushing through a legislation increasing the amount of overtime that can be requested by employers – while reducing the power of unions to even negotiate better terms locally. In short, when most of the world is looking at the 4-day week, Hungary has created the 6-day work week.

The unions have been particularly hard hit as they have participated in the preparation of the new law – but have been completely blindsided when the eventual legislation had nothing to do with what they have agreed on during negotiations. A vintage Fidesz tactic – lie in their face, promise anything, and then walk away and do whatever you wanted in the first place.

Opposition parties have also been sidelined as the ruling majority didn’t even tolerate the appearance of an actual parliamentary debate – they’re getting lazy and impatient – not that the opposition had any chance to vote down the proposal. Microphones were cut as opposition MPS tried to say their speeches in Parliament and thousands of proposals for modification were swept aside in a single vote by Fidesz. (No, that’s not legal, but it doesn’t matter anymore.) Fidesz doesn’t even play democracy anymore, not even in parliament. Their tolerance for opposition is running thin for whatever reason. Even the theater of democracy was crudely denied this time, prompting opposition MPs to crank up the show that resulted in the most tumultuous parliamentary session in a long time, yells, whistles and all.

Then the protests went to the streets.

As the protests are entering their third week, the unions are finally getting moving and it appears that the opposition parties may have put aside their egos for the time being. The question is how long either of these phenomena will last and how long people can be motivated to keep turning up for dishearteningly impact-less protests in the unpleasant January weather.

One of the ways any such movement can be killed is announcing so many tiny protests one doesn’t bother to turn up to either – and the uncoordinated organizers seem to be well on their way to achieve exactly that. Another one is just to keep going – and let participation fizzle out. It happened during the pointless post-election mass protests, when protesters didn’t even know what they wanted. (They didn’t claim that there was widespread cheating – even though 37% believe that it was widespread enough to significantly change the outcome and to usher in Orbán’s precious supermajority.) They didn’t demand recounting. They didn’t hope for anything. But the organizers kept calling people for new and new dates – until the whole pointless exercise fizzled out. If Orbán were behind the protests, he couldn’t have asked for more.

The delay and reluctance of the unions to get moving and organize a strike is also telling. In Hungary neither protests nor strikes are popular with the public, and organizers of either always go out of their way not to disturb anyone, and to show the world what a good boy they are.

What is new in these protests and what is not?

Firstly, these protests do nothing that hasn’t been done before. There have been protests that have spread to the countryside, to abroad, and there have been much bigger protests (by number of participants – although the relevance of that is not clear) against various policies of the Orbán-government.

There has also been hope before that this might be the moment the Orbán regime cracks – but it never did. The regime never relented. It never backpedaled. And every time resistance fizzled out and protesters went home, it became just a little cheaper and easier for Orbán to keep power and exercise it against anyone’s interests.

Having to retreat even on a minor issue can potentially unravel an authoritarian regime built on the futility of resistance. The lesson to teach to the population is that resistance is futile – and the bigger the outrage, the better. When the regime doesn’t budge on an unpopular motion, despite resistance, apathy grows even greater, making the exercise and maintenance of power even cheaper. It is always a gamble, of course. There have been a few issues in which Orbán’s system had to (almost) retreat, but they were never fully complete.

No protest has ever achieved anything under Orbán (with the lame exception of a proposed internet tax) and the resulting apathy is one of the gravest issues in Hungary today. No actual policy of the Orbán regime had never been reversed due to active citizen resistance. And this is where the “slave law” protests could be relevant – and their failure could push the country even deeper into apathy.

With the overtime law Fidesz wielded the power they have accumulated since 2010. And every form of resistance is a make-or-break test to the system. There is no middle ground.

This is the first time, however, that people seem to realize that there is no institution left to turn to when the regime hurts them. Parties are fragmented, divided and stupefied. Courts have been neutralized the same day the new labor code was passed. The constitutional court has been neutralized a long time ago. Workers’ unions are also essentially a joke.

People can’t even explain it away this time. This time there is no bad adviser vs good king, there is no solace in the fact that only others are affected – because this time everyone is. With the unions, the courts, the prosecution, the constitutional court, the media, the statistical office and even the opposition parties eliminated as checks on Orbán’s power, every employee had to realize that they have nowhere to turn, there is no one to speak up for them.

The scary specter of having to make a stand for themselves had materialized.

What is new in these protests is that for the first time in eight years, the entire opposition (parliamentary and otherwise) had been working together. Not sure how long they will keep it up, because this kind of cooperation is highly discouraged under Orbán’s regime and the weeks following the 2018 election defeat made it abundantly clear that many opposition politicians are so forceful in keeping the divisions going that they might as well be working for Orbán.

Not only that, but the opposition appears to be pathologically drawn to discussing and chewing on any communication flash bomb the populist propaganda machine throws their way in the shape of scapegoats or “policy” proposals. An even bigger scandal would take the wind out of their sails immediately, just as a counter-fire puts out the original one. It’s only that Orbán’s spin doctors were not prepared with one yet – they are also getting lazy. But wait for it. The man, who hushed the ramblings over the stealing of the tobacco sector to benefit his own loyalists by announcing that he wants to bring back the death penalty will surely have a nasty threat up in his sleeves this time.

It is also completely new and unprecedented that any credible report about the existence or progress of protests can now only be found online, many times only on Facebook. If you understand the first thing about Facebook and its proclivity to adopt state priorities, you should be alarmed. The fact that the majority of the media is already controlled by Orbán is almost irrelevant in comparison.

For a few days in December 2018 opposition MPs have worked together, submitting thousands of modifications to the new labor code (only to be voted down in one vote by Fidesz), sabotaging the parliamentary vote to highlight that there isn’t even a pretense of a debate anymore, and worked together in a rare and inspired move to enter the building of the public broadcaster (they are not allowed to otherwise), demanding that they broadcast their five point demands.

Addressing the public TV’s headquarters is not only symbolic because in 2006 Fidesz protesters set fire to it and occupied it when Orbán refused to accept election results. The tradition of wanting your demands to be printed/broadcast goes back to 1848. Wanting something so concrete (and so symbolic) and using MPs’ immunity to achieve something that protesters could never do was a rare moment of brilliance from an otherwise dispirited and stupefied opposition. So rare, in fact, that I am more incline to write it off as an accident, not a thoughtful change in strategy.

The second thing that is new that it is now definitely the Orbán-system the protests are addressing, not just the “slave law”.

Having no chance to ever win elections under this regime, and having nothing to lose (the specter of physical violence by authorities is still weak), some opposition MPs couldn’t sit in Orbán’s parliament and keep pressing ‘No’ on Orbán’s laws while they passed anyway. Some didn’t even want to take their oaths when they learned about the new 2/3 supermajority. They have now found something to do – using their immunity and privileges to press issues like trying to bring the 5 points into the public TV.

But that may all unravel in the coming weeks.

It is not for the first time for large protests to happen under Orbán’s rule. In fact, protests became much more frequent than ever before since 1989. There have also been bigger ones – except they weren’t always noticed internationally and never yielded anything.

This is not even the first time the countryside and the expats joined in the protests in Budapest, creating a network of protests in 22 cities across the globe and dozens within Hungary. The same had happened against the inane internet tax proposal in 2014, for instance, or when high-ranking Orbán-officials were banned from entering the US on corruption grounds, to name just two.

Violence from Orbán’s opposition is also new – if limited. For the first time in the history of anti-Orbán protests there was some misbehavior from protesters – lame as it is compared to what the other side did in 2006 . This is the first time Hungarian opposition protesters were not good-boys and not completely apologetic – but the second wave of “slave law” protests duly relapsed into good-boy mode though.

If the protests continue and escalate, the issue of more aggressive tools will emerge on both the protester’s and the regime’s side. The question is not what many are now asking, whether Orbán will at one point “call in the Russian tanks” to support his regime, nor is it whether he will use more force. It is whether he can continue building his power with soft tools – the ones that international public opinion finds hard to understand: economic coercion, non-violent intimidation, etc. – or he will be forced to lose deniability.

In a world where journalists are regularly killed by oppressive regimes and the free world desperately wants keep pretending that nothing had happened, offers that can’t be refused and informal firings for political views can hardly make the cut for even a 15-minute outrage. They won’t even slow down your scrolling. Yet, these tools are perfectly enough to slowly reduce an entire country into submission – especially when they are combined with unprecedented levels of emigration of said country’s most agile demographic groups. And of course, with protests that never achieve anything – year in, year out.

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Featured image: MTI via 

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