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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