THE PROTESTERS who marched through downtown Budapest on December 16th dubbed their demonstration “Merry Xmas, Mr Prime Minister”. They were only 10,000 strong, and fewer made it to the headquarters of the state broadcaster. But for Viktor Orban, Hungary’s populist leader, it was an unsettling start to the holiday season. In a rare display of unity, the demonstrators waved both the red flag of the Socialist Party and the tricolour banner of Jobbik, a far-right party that is trying to move towards the centre. Other left-wing and liberal groups also put aside their squabbles to present a united front.
The demonstrators were protesting against two new laws passed last week. The first allows companies to request that employees work up to 400 hours of overtime a year, while giving firms three years to pay the added salary. (Some speculate that the aim is to help foreign-owned factories, especially German carmakers, which complain of a labour shortage.) The second establishes a parallel system of administrative courts, overseen by the minister of justice, to deal with matters related to the state. The worry is that this would shield the government from all kinds of legal challenges.
Compared with other elements of Mr Orban’s self-declared plan to turn Hungary into an “illiberal” democracy, these may seem like small beans. Over the course of Mr Orban’s three terms in office since 2010, political and economic power has been centralised to a degree unprecedented since the collapse of communism. The European Parliament voted in September to move towards suspending some or all of Hungary’s rights, under article seven of the treaty of the European Union, though few expect real consequences.
By the evening of December 17th, the protesters had braved sub-zero temperatures for five nights in a row. Some opposition MPs forced their way into the state television studio to demand that they be allowed to read their manifesto. Two were forcibly removed by security guards.
Despite the modest numbers, the protests are significant because of the unity of the opposition, says Tamas Boros of Policy Solutions, a think-tank. The demonstrators come from two distinct sections of Hungarian society. One group, Mr Boros says, consists of veteran protesters “with ideological grievances against the regime. The other is people affected by the labour law, concerned about their everyday lives.” That could form a potent mixture.
Yet for now Mr Orban looks secure. In polls over 50% of Hungarians support the ruling party, Fidesz. Opposition groups trail far behind. Officials dismissed the protests as the work of dissidents guided by George Soros, a Hungarian-born billionaire and philanthropist whom the government blames for everything. (Mr Soros’s organisation wearily denies it.)
Zoltan Kovacs, the government’s spokesman, called gripes about the new laws “fake news”. He said the labour law was in line with EU norms. Administrative courts, he noted, were part of the Hungarian system before communism. Mr Orban’s government has argued before that its illiberal reforms conform to European principles. The EU disagrees. So, it appears, do an increasing number of Hungarians.