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Hungarian fightback?

Posted by Alex Mayer on 30th January 2019

If this Hungarian fight back is crushed, all Europeans must bow their heads in shame.

On the other side of our continent, a nation is locked in a battle for freedoms, workers’ rights and justice, not seen since the fall of Communism.

The Hungarian ‘slave law’ which allows companies to force their staff to work up to 400 hours of overtime a year has caused a wave of anger.

In the Hungarian Parliament, opposition MPs tried to delay and disrupt parliamentary business blocking access to the speaker’s podium and blowing whistles. Footage shared on Facebook showed two Hungarian MPs forcibly thrown out of the state TV headquarters after they tried to broadcast a petition against new labour laws. Hungarian people took to the streets with fifteen thousand people demonstrating in Budapest, with smaller rallies in other towns. Some unions are now calling for a general strike.

In response, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban dismissed the protests as “hysterical shouting.”

Since 2010 Orban’s government has steadily become more autocratic and less accountable. Numerous organisations have charted this descent. The OSCE said the ability of election candidates to “compete on an equal basis was significantly compromised”, the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute stated the “independence and impartiality of the Hungarian judiciary cannot be guaranteed and the rule of law remains weakened” and the UN Human Rights Committee expressed concerns about Hungary’s media laws and practices that restrict freedom of opinion and expression.

It has also been plain to see in the hostile policies and rhetoric towards migrants, minorities and anyone who might oppose the government’s will. Whether it is domestic opposition figures or the supporter of progressive causes, George Soros, Orban’s Fidesz party has sought to paint them all as traitors and dangers to Hungarian sovereignty.

One particularly vicious billboard, paid for by Fidesz, is described in The New Yorker as bearing a “photoshopped image of a grinning Soros, his arms around the shoulders of opposition politicians, who clutched garden shears and peered expectantly through a hole they’d cut in the border fence.”

A group of far-right “activists” loyal to Orban and Fidesz strung up a life size model of an opposition socialist politician on a tree near where the Communist Party used to have its headquarters.

Academic institutions, like the Central European University, have been targeted and been forced to abandon Budapest for Vienna.

In the European Parliament today MEPs will once again ask the Commission and Council about the deteriorating situation in Hungary. While the European Parliament acted, I would argue too slowly, it did agree in September 2018 to recommend triggering Article 7 procedures against Hungary. But now we are stuck, waiting for the 28 leaders of EU nations to unanimously agree to take further action, something unlikely to occur due to Poland’s similar predicament and its leader’s veto over sanctions.

It is frankly surreal: democratic governments are failing to endorse a democratically elected Parliament’s decision to uphold democracy.

But by not taking meaningful action, European governments are failing the people of Hungary.

No wonder Mr Oban thinks he can ignore “hysterical shouting.”

With a crumbling independent judiciary and a pro-government monopoly over the media, opposition figures and the Hungarian people cannot resist Orban alone.

It is time for a wave of solidarity from all citizens across Europe who oppose the authoritarian drift of the Hungarian government. We need to rise up too and put pressure on our governments and demand that they act to send a powerful message to Hungary that enough is enough.

Let us support the newly galvanised opposition before the flicking flame of hope is extinguished.