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Hungarians have once again taken to the streets in their thousands in the country’s capital Budapest, to protest against the new so-called “slave law” by the government, which would allow employers to ask their employees to work up to 400 overtime hours every year. The protests began a week ago -and have continued for six consecutive nights– when the legislation was first pushed through parliament by Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his ruling Fidesz party.
Previously, employers were only permitted to ask their employees to work no more than 250 overtime hours in a year. The government has defended the law by claiming that it is “in the interest of the workers,” as it will allow them to earn more. However, rightist groups, opposition politicians, and protesters have all criticized the law, and taken to protesting outside state media broadcast studios, in an unsuccessful effort to air their grievances.
At the same time, the government also passed legislation that would allow them to create new courts to manage cases relating to “government business,” including taxes and election related cases. While the government has touted this law as “in line with current European approaches and standards,” the fact that Orban’s own Justice Minister will oversee the hiring of judges for this special court has also brought into question the fairness and justice of the court. Dávid Vig, director of Amnesty International Hungary, has called the new legislation “a political decision that aims to extend the government’s control over the judiciary,” and argued that it serves as another step in a long line of decisions made by the government to “erode rule of law in Hungary.”
These laws have galvanised a sometimes fractured opposition into coming together for a common cause, with a clear list of demands of the government. The opposition is calling for a reversal of the “slave law,” an independent judiciary system, and an independent public media.
Critics of the law and of Orban’s government have also stated that these laws will increase the government’s authoritarian rule over the country and continue to dismantle democratic institutions in the country; a process which has been ongoing since the party came to power in 2010. This extent of this crackdown on democracy prompted the European Union to enact a disciplinary process against Hungary several months ago, and if pursued fully, could result in a suspension of voting rights for Hungary within the EU. However, the extent of disciplinary action against Hungary could remain limited due to the unlikelihood that key Hungarian allies such as Poland would vote against the country.
Hungary’s consistent disregard for democratic concerns and the perceived move towards a more autocratic state has deep implications for the country’s future, both as a EU member state, and for the wellbeing and prosperity of the Hungarians who are deeply affected – and will continue to be so – if the government is not kept in check.