Last year, Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, seemed unstoppable. His right-wing Fidesz party won last April’s general election in a landslide, winning two-thirds of the seats in parliament. But since the end of December, people have been taking to the streets on a scale unseen since the crisis that first brought Orbán to power in 2010. For the first time since the collapse of Stalinism, a general strike is being posed as a serious possibility in Hungary.
The protests are directed against new anti-worker legislation. The legislation, dubbed the “slave law,” allows employers to force their employees to work as much as 400 hours overtime per year. Payment for this overtime work can be delayed by as long as three years, without any need to adjust the delayed payments for inflation. Normally legislation this extreme would require extensive parliamentary debate and consultation with the trade unions. But the Fidesz government made use of legal loopholes to ram the legislation through in a single day.
Orbán came to power in 2010 following mass disillusionment with the way the neoliberal government of the Hungarian Socialist Party handled the 2008 financial crisis. Without an organized working-class opposition to the Socialist Party, Orbán and Fidesz were able to fill the vacuum with appeals to right-wing Hungarian nationalism, thinly veiled anti-Semitism, and scapegoating of refugees. This was accompanied by superficially left-wing measures to increase taxes on multinational corporations and to re-nationalize some privatized services. Measures intended to prop up Hungarian capitalism at the expense of its competitors.
In power, Orbán has cracked down on democratic rights. The constitution was rewritten to give more power to the Fidesz party. These powers were used to increase government control over the media, the universities, and the judiciaries. In 2017 student protests broke out over the government shutting down the Central European University. The state-run media justified this by promoting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about George Soros, a founder of CEU. The conspiracy theories have continued during the current protests with the media calling the working-class protesters “the servants of Soros.”
What’s significant about the protests against the “slave law,” besides their scale, is the prominence of the working class and trade unions in heading the protests. The trade unions were silent for most of Orbán’s attacks, impeded by anti-union legislation and conservative leaderships. But now, the protests are bringing out meatpackers, miners, teachers, metal workers, and many other sectors of the workforce. Unions are threatening to hold a general strike unless Orbán scraps the legislation. Although this hasn’t materialized yet, “warning strikes” such as a strike of 4,000 Audi workers in Western Hungary have taken place.
A strike movement that can effectively counter the government is implicit in the situation, with the potential to bring down the Orbán government. But this poses the question of what comes next. The mainstream opposition parties, such as the Hungarian Socialist Party and the Christian Democratic People’s Party, have been trying to curry favor with the demonstrators. But they hearken back to the pro-EU, pro-austerity governments that were discredited during the 2008 financial crisis. These parties are so discredited that the neo-fascist Jobbik party was able to emerge as the biggest opposition party in April’s elections. Ultimately, it will need a strong workers’ party, armed with a socialist and internationalist program rooted in mass struggle and in the unions, to fight to come to power and to provide a better life for workers and youth.