At least 5,000 demonstrators late on Friday took to the streets of the Hungarian capital, Budapest, as right-wing nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban dismissed a wave of protests against a new labor reform as “hysterical shouting.”
Protesters marched from outside the Hungarian parliament to the presidential palace on the other side of the Danube River in temperatures close to freezing.
Many shouted slogans against the government, but no clashes were reported with police.
The series of protests was sparked on Wednesday last week when lawmakers 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 was expected to be the last before the Christmas holidays, but unions and opposition parties announced they would hold a new protest on Jan. 5 to keep up the momentum of the movement into the new year.
“A new opposition has been born,” Balazs Barany from the left-wing MSZP party told the rally, with the protests uniting various rival factions in an unprecedented fashion.
Unions have also taken part, threatening a general strike to fight the legislation.
“The country must be brought to a standstill in January,” Tamas Szucs from the teachers’ union told the crowd.
“If the workers stop the factories, block the roads, we will go with them,” Balazs Lipusz from the Union of University Students added.
An 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.
LIST OF DEMANDS
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 judicial reform and more independence in public news media.
Meanwhile, councils in the country’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 news 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 defense 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.”
He said that employees would 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.
“This law is a good law, we have to judge it on how it works in practice,” Orban said.
“We heard this same hysterical shouting when we threw the IMF out of Hungary, when we cut taxes or introduced the public works program, 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.
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