Gloomy Sunday for the Hungarian Government

Creative Commons

Just a single year has passed since the introduction of the infamous shop closure law in Hungary, but the Fidesz-led right-wing government had already withdrew the regulation that forbade most retail outlets to open and serve customers on Sundays. The controversial bill that was proposed by the Christian Democrats, the satellite-party of Fidesz, had the official objective to allow families to spend more time together. Nonetheless, the law soon came under fierce criticism, as it was not only an intrusion on lifestyle choices, but a measure to confer an advantage to a supermarket chain whose leader is a loyal supporter of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

The Socialists, the largest party of the opposition, saw the political opportunity in the issue and initiated a referendum on it. After overcoming several institutional and legal barriers (and witnessing extraordinary scenes of skinheads jostling a Socialist representative in the building of the National Election Office), the party started the collection of voters’ signatures, needed to hold a referendum. The governing populist right shortly realized that – for the first time in many years – the opposition has the chance to control the agenda, diverting the attention of media and citizens alike from their anti-refugee campaign and the proposed amendment of the Constitution with the inclusion of ‘state of terror emergency’. Frightened by this possibility (and sensing the of antipathy of the vast majority of the Hungarian society to the law), the governing alliance undertook to revoke its own regulation and accept its symbolic defeat in order to regain the ability to frame the political discourse.

It would be anything but new for a referendum in Hungary to have substantial political consequences. Fidesz and its junior coalition member well remembers the plebiscite held in Spring 2008, the questions of which concerned financially minuscule fees yet accelerated the downward slide of popularity of the left-liberal government. No matter how material in its nature, the would-be referendum on shop closure could spectacularly counterpoint the cabinet-proposed one on immigration quotas, and as polls foreshadowed an overwhelming majority against both issues, the likely results would have easily neutralized political gains of the government and placed Sunday shopping on the same level as the refugee crisis.

No wonder that the recently abolished regulation met with the revulsion in a notable share of the Hungarian society: besides the hypocrisy of the official arguments (quality time of family members spent together vs. the legal exception of allowing shops to stay open if they are operated by the owner or their relatives by blood or marriage), some Hungarians lost more than their liberty of freely choosing the say of their shopping. Student employees, for instance, working largely in the weekends to save up for their tuition fees and living expenses were among the first who were sent off by the multinational supermarket chains but due to the prescriptions of the regulation on night-time operation, 24/7 shops that were not run by family members also suffered a serious blow.

Other antagonized groups of workers include those who labor 6-days-a-week and those who had to switch to longer or late evening shifts in stores strongly dependent on weekend customers (selling items like furniture or household hardware). Before the implementation of the law, working hours on Sunday were a burden for some but also an opportunity for yet others: given the amount of the wage supplement, those seeking higher levels of income could arrange their schedules accordingly by trading off their free Sundays. Nor did the frame of mind make the perception of the law better that juxtaposed the possibility of attending church services with shopping, stressing the ‘educating’ intentions of the Christian Democrats, the junior coalition party that maintains strong ties with the Catholic Church. Its not the first time in Central Eastern Europe to have such interlacements between church interests and legislation on shop closures: the most striking example is probably Croatia, where the Roman Catholic Church initiated a similar legislation on two occasions, in 2004 and 2008, respectively.

Nick Papakyriazis || Creative Commons

The Republikon Institute had conducted a few opinion polls on people’s attitudes towards the Sunday closure regulation. Our first set of data was gathered just before the by-election of Veszprém, as a result of which the governing Fidesz lost its two-thirds supermajority in the National Assembly. Results of our research had shown that the relative majority (44%) of those who lived in the given constituency opposed the regulation. Note at this time, the bill had already been passed, but had not yet entered into force, meaning that responses indicated more of a principled opposition instead of being reflections of employment or lifestyle-related hardships voters had encountered. Later, one of our other analyses has pointed out that the law was highly contested even among the voters of the governing alliance. Three socio-demographic subgroups of Fidesz supporters out of the five, identified earlier by the Republikon Institute, clearly opposed the measure – particularly those, who were living in the countryside or had little general interest in politics and public affairs.

The measure in Hungary had become the symbol of governmental interference into everyday citizens’ lives, a sentiment that resonates well with the strong-arm politics image of the Orbán cabinet. Leftist and liberal parties protested against the bill from the beginning alike, but only the Socialist Party opposed the regulation wholeheartedly and spent human and financial resources on building up a viable counter-campaign. As a positive side effect, the position of the Jobbik on the issue got marginalized, as the pro-traditional-family agenda and the strong anti-multinational company rhetoric did not allow the extremist and radical party to go against the measure. Despite feeling the public mood, Jobbik missed the opportunity to criticize the government and – in the words of one of its MPs – eventually ‘exercised self-criticism’ seeing the ‘societal will’ and the unpopularity of the idea that was present in their own party manifesto as well.

Right now it is unforeseeable how long the issue will be able to remain on the political agenda. The Socialists have already proposed a bill that would forbid the reintroduction of the regulation for three years, this being the time interval that a successful referendum would have prescribed for going against the expressed will of the voters. As the Fidesz-KDNP alliance is unlikely to vote for the proposal (given that the issue already magnifies and reveals existing ruptures within the governing political family, with two powerful ministers being absent from the voting on the withdrawal of the closure took place, and later issuing a joint statement expressing their disagreement with the revocation), the Socialists will probably keep collecting signatures. This offers them the chance to forge support for two other issues of the opposition: land privatization and caps on salaries of those who lead (or employed by) state companies. These questions, however, seem to be of less importance and excitement for the voters and not even exclusive ‘political domains’ of the party. The latter one, for instance was proposed by an independent liberal MP, largely as a reaction to a recent governmental initiative that more than doubled the wage ceiling that was previously in place.

Daniel Kovarek
Republikon Institute