Orbán government in tactical retreat — Hungary’s stores permitted to open on Sundays

It speaks volumes about what matters most to Hungarian citizens, when news of the Orbán government’s decision Monday morning to allow all stores and shopping malls to remain open on Sundays is considered to be groundbreaking, headline news–with flashing “breaking news” banners for added impact–on nearly all major Hungarian news sites. Last week, the courts gave the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) the final and long-awaited go-ahead to gather the 200,000 signatures needed to hold a binding referendum on whether to overturn Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s decision, enacted on March 14th, 2015, to force the vast majority of shops to remain closed on most Sundays.

The hugely unpopular piece of legislation (polls showed that between 60% and 70% of Hungarians opposed the move) was trumpeted by the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) and, as such, was perceived by a largely secular Hungarian public as an aggressive and arrogant attempt to force Hungarians to attend church, by locking them out of their favourite box stores and malls on Sundays. Others on the right noted that the legislation was actually progressive, in that it protected the rights of workers, giving them a day off to spend with family and engaged in leisurely activities. Most people, however, recognized that giving smaller grocery stores with close ties to Fidesz (especially the CBA chain) an advantage over the large multinational supermarkets (such Tesco, Spar or Auchan), was an important consideration. The legislation allowed for some smaller shops (based on square footage) to open on Sundays, while the larger supermarkets and malls had no such option. That having been said, there is some evidence suggesting that the CBA chain did not actually benefit from this legal loophole. The large multinational chains managed to convince their clients to shop during extended hours on Friday and Saturday, instead of shopping at small neighbourhood stores on Sundays.

The forced closure of all supermarkets and larger commercial establishments on Sunday was meant to give local Hungarian chains, like the pro-Fidesz CBA grocery stores, an advantage over multinational giants.

The forced closure of all supermarkets and larger commercial establishments on Sunday was meant to give local Hungarian chains, like the pro-Fidesz CBA grocery stores, an advantage over multinational giants.

Antal Rogán, Mr. Orbán’s chief of staff, was given the unhappy task of announcing the reversal in the government’s position on Sunday store closures. Only last week, János Lázár, the minister in charge of the Prime Minister’s Office, told journalists that he supported obligatory store closures on Sundays, but added that both Fidesz, as well as society as a whole would have to spend some time debating this issue.

That “debate” took less than 72 hours. On Monday, Mr. Rogán indicated that the government had planned all along to spend the year since enacting the 2015 “blue law” weighing and assessing its impact. As such, it is only natural that the government, after careful and measured evaluation, will now rescind legislation which has “divided” public opinion in Hungary. Fidesz, of course, builds its political modus operandi on dividing cohorts and cross-sections of society against each other. It also knows that if an issue ever managed to bring Hungarians of many different political stripes together, it was the widespread opposition to the ban on Sunday shopping.  Mr. Rogán said that the government’s other reason for retreating on this issue was that the Socialist-led referendum campaign would cost Hungarian taxpayers 5 billion forints. As such, the responsible thing to do is to preempt the plebiscite altogether by folding on the issue of Sunday store closures.

Interestingly, Fidesz is preparing for its own referendum, on whether Hungarians want to allow the European Union to “dictate” whether refugees and migrants can “settle” in Hungary, based on quotas. In this case, the 5 billion forint bill is not enough to dissuade Fidesz from taking its loaded and legally problematic question to voters.

The planned referendum was a major feather in MSZP’s cap and it was one a battle that the opposition would have undoubtedly won. The plebiscite would have also included two other questions, both focused on corruption in the Fidesz government. As such, it likely came as no surprise among Socialists that the regime has decided to use a preemptive strike.

“I knew from the first moment, that this despotic regime is incapable of facing the clear will of the people. The government gave back the freedom of Sunday shopping out of fear of a defeat in the referendum,” said MSZP politician István Nyakó, who spearheaded the efforts against the blue laws.

Fidesz is losing no time in rescinding the law. Mr. Rogán announced that the motion would be put before a vote in Parliament this week and if it passes, stores could already welcome shoppers next Sunday. Péter Harrach, who leads the KDNP faction, suggested that members of his party would either abstain or vote against the motion.

A SPAR Supermarket in Budapest. Photo: trademagazin.hu.

A SPAR Supermarket in Budapest. Photo: trademagazin.hu.

The largest supermarket chains (Tesco, Auchan and Spar) will now race against the clock, in an effort to capitalize from the new Sunday opening  hours, although it will undoubtedly take some time before everything is put into place (including revising employee hours and schedules).

Meanwhile, there are actually some mixed reactions within the Hungarian opposition to the announcement. Much of the mainstream centre-left sees this as a victory of individual freedom over government intervention in the private lives of Hungarian citizens. At the same time, Hungarians further on the left of the political spectrum–such as those affiliated with a hard left news site called Munkások Újsága (Workers’ Newspaper), are less enthusiastic about scores of Hungarians spending their Sundays supporting the business practices and bolstering the profits of major multinational corporations and box stores.

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6 Comments

  1. I always felt that this would be a ‘give-back’ when the time was right. It was just a matter of time.

  2. Dr. Habil. András Fodor says:

    Orbán is a genious.

    He took out the sail from the boat of the communists (calling themselves socialists). Poor Comarad Nyakó is in real life danger from the high blood pressure and stroke…

  3. As a christian myself, I support the closure on Sundays. Shops were closed for many decades on Sundays, and we considered that normal. If people did not go to church, they might spent that time with the family, took a trip, etc.

    However, I find it strange, that the socialists in Hungary support the opening on Sundays, while the socialists in Western Europe oppose it. However, nearly all the shops are closed on Sundays in Austria and Germany, but there are no such uproar that “We want to go shopping on Sundays”

  4. F***k christians says:

    @Vipera That is bullcrap, major stores and malls are open every day all over the world. Religion should not be part of a government decision ever

  5. John Simpson says:

    Finally we are calling time on this religious initiated stupidity, keeping a day of the week sacred for the invisible man that lives above the clouds. Nobody is saying you can not go to church and that you have to go shopping instead, that is a personal choice. Not even Fidesz wanted this law, there hand was forced by the need to placate the ‘living dead’ leadership of the KDNP for their support. Support which gave Orban a two-thirds parliamentary majority. Hungary is not Poland, each year thousands less attend church than previous years. The church is slowly on the way out. The corruption of the governing party is now so visible that they are desperately trying anything and everything to deflect the spotlight from their criminal activities. Receding this law is just part of that smokescreen…

  6. In the time of Jesus Christ there was no mass communication, there were no department stores, malls, mass transport, infrastructure and kinda modern highly industrialized life that we have today. What would he say today?

    It’s not the Sunday shopping that causes harm to family life, rather the everyday robot, working overtime that burns people out, high prices, poverty, exploitation of human resources, bad education, miserable health service, junk food, chemicals/fluoride in drinking water, unbearable taxes,…oh how long list do you want.

    What does Christian religion say about those things and people live in poverty while others accumulating wealth so big they never be able make use of a 10% of what they have took away from the poor.

    O.K. let the spirit of Christianity prevail and start to solve the problems first with the most serious and harmful to humankind, and you Christians go fight for human life and wealth and moral first paying attention to the most destructive problems and let the Sunday shopping to the last.

    Don’t worry about the decreasing population, Hungarian people like any others will reproduce – as any others they enjoy the process of reproducing 🙂 – as soon as they get out of poverty, they can earn money enough to stay alive.

    And I have a good news: as soon as they have life, families will stay together more than ever and will go to shop on Sundays together hand in hand. 🙂 Great cohesive power 🙂

    They love reproducing and shopping, just give them life. Just let them get their feet back.

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