BUDAPEST: At least 5,000 demonstrators took to the streets of the Hungarian capital Budapest late Friday, as rightwing nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban dismissed a wave of protests against a new labour reform as “hysterical shouting”.
Protesters marched from outside parliament to the presidential palace on the other side of the Danube in temperatures close to freezing.
Many shouted angry slogans against the government but no clashes were reported with police.
The current series of protests was sparked on Dec 12 when MPs passed a measure — dubbed the “slave law” by opponents — which hikes the amount of overtime that employers can demand from 250 to 400 hours per year.
Friday evening’s demonstration is expected to be the last before the Christmas holidays, but unions and opposition parties announced they would hold a new protest on 5 January to keep up the momentum of the movement into the new year.
Balazs Barany from the leftwing MSZP party told the rally that “a new opposition has been born”, with the protests uniting various rival factions in an unprecedented fashion.
Unions have also taken part, threatening a general strike to fight the law.
Tamas Szucs from the teachers’ union told the crowd: “The country must be brought to a standstill in January!”
Balazs Lipusz from the Union of University Students added: “If the workers stop the factories, block the roads, we will go with them!”
A rude anti-Orban slogan was projected onto the side of parliament and the presidential palace, with some protestors also chanting slogans in solidarity with the private Central European University (CEU).
During the rally Anna Donath from the small liberal party Momentum read out a list of five demands of the protest movement, including not only the abolition of the overtime law, but also the scrapping of a recent judicial reform and more independence in public news media.
Meanwhile, councils in Hungary’s third-largest city of Szeged and the northern town of Salgotarjan on Friday passed resolutions promising not to implement the new law.
Speaking at a press conference before Friday’s protest, MSZP president Bertalan Toth alluded to possible protest action against businesses with ties to Orban’s Fidesz party, as well as the big employers who stand to benefit from the overtime law.
“We will target those that the Fidesz regime caters to with their laws,“ Toth said.
However, Orban used a weekly interview with public radio to double down on his defence of the law, saying that his government “simply wants to get rid of silly rules so that those who want to earn more can work more”.
Orban said in the interview that employees will be paid for overtime at the end of each month, but the text of the law allows employers to delay payment by up to three years.
Orban insisted that “this law is a good law, we have to judge it on how it works in practice”.
“We heard this same hysterical shouting when we threw the IMF out of Hungary, when we cut taxes or introduced the public works programme, the opposition cried: ‘Slave!’,“ he added.
He also repeated the government’s accusation that the “most aggressive protesters are paid by George Soros,“ the liberal Hungarian-born US billionaire and a frequent target of Orban’s government.
According to a poll published by the Publicus company on Friday, more than two-thirds of Hungarians thought the protests were justified and that the overtime law would hurt workers’ interests. — AFP