Hungary’s parliament repeals Sunday store closure law, as Fidesz offers righteous indignation

Hungary’s parliament voted by a massive margin (163 yes votes, 11 abstentions and 2 opposed) to repeal a law enacted in March 2015, that shuttered the majority of retail stores and commercial establishments on Sundays.  It took the governing Fidesz party less than 24 hours to announce its intention to repeal the highly unpopular piece of legislation, submit it to parliament, debate it and then vote on it. Clearly, the Orbán government wants to put this issue behind it as quickly as possible and ensure that the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) is unable to use it to galvanize public opinion against the regime. But as parliament prepared to repeal the law, Fidesz politicians, and those associated with its coalition partner, the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), provided a bitter display of righteous indignation. Their rhetoric sounded very much like that used following Viktor Orbán’s election defeat in 2002, when the dominant narrative in Fidesz circles focused on a Hungarian public that was just not mature enough to appreciate a conservative, “civic” (polgári) government.

The Hungarian parliament debating the repeal of the "blue law" on Tuesday. On the right is Péter Harrach, leader of the Christian Democratic People's Party, which initially spearheaded the now repealed legislation. To the left, Lajos Kósa (Fidesz) and directly behind him Gergely Gulyás (Fidesz). Photo: MTI.

The Hungarian parliament debating the repeal of the “blue law” on Tuesday. On the right is Péter Harrach, leader of the Christian Democratic People’s Party, which initially spearheaded the now repealed bill. To the left, Lajos Kósa (Fidesz) and directly behind him Gergely Gulyás (Fidesz). Photo: MTI.

Imre Vejkey, an MP affiliated with KDNP, used a biblical analogy in his discussion of the blue law. “All that matters today is the golden calf and that is what they worship. Money has become the measure of human value,” declared Mr. Vejkey of who he disparagingly referred to as “the so-called modern man.” Mr. Vejkey argued that having a day of rest is the right of all workers and that even the secular labour movement supported the measure, which the Christian Democrats have tried to adopt ever since the transition to democracy in 1990. (It’s worth noting that only one union came out in support of compulsory Sunday store closures.)

“This will lead to the disintegration of the family community. A lack of shared experiences may lead to families falling apart. Yet at the heart of every society is the family,” added Mr. Vejkey. The governing coalition’s MP also believes that Hungarian voters have been tricked and deceived by those who aimed to reap political rewards from repealing the law. He then repeated that the Hungarian population must learn that money isn’t everything and that we have to make sacrifices, such as not shopping on Sundays.

Imre Vejkey (KDNP)

Imre Vejkey (KDNP) / Photo: MTI.

Mr. Vejkey also decided to insert the refugee and migrant crisis into the discussion on Sunday store closures, within the context of the Hungarian population’s “unwillingness” to assume sacrifices by reproducing at a faster rate. “Hundreds of thousands of migrants are headed to Germany, Denmark and Sweden. And millions more are preparing to come, many of whom are Islamic State militants. This is the gravest danger facing humanity since the Second World War,” remarked the KDNP politician.

Róbert Répássy, a Fidesz MP, as well as others in the governing party, believe that the public failed to understand and appreciate the benefits of mandatory Sunday store closures. Mr. Répássy specifically went after the opposition MSZP, which was against the “inherently left-wing” idea of legislating a day of rest for workers on Sundays.

Gergely Gulyás, a Fidesz MP and Deputy Speaker of Parliament, argued that the public misunderstood the government’s intentions. While many Hungarians felt that their freedoms were being curtailed, the government’s intention was actually to provide those employed in the retail sector with more liberties. “Social solidarity and civic Hungary have both experienced a defeat. But in a democracy, the will of the people is the highest law,” remarked Mr. Gulyás.

Hungary’s Minister of Human Resources, Zoltán Balog, as well as Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office, János Lázár, both opposed the motion to repeal the law, but decided not to actually attend the vote, out of loyalty to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who had been speaking with key Fidesz and KDNP politicians over the past day, in order to convince them to support rescinding the legislation.

Zoltán Lukács, an MP associated with MSZP, had some harsh words for Fidesz-KDNP, even as the law was being repealed. “They introduced the bill mindlessly and without any logic. And they are now repealing it in much the same way,” noted the Socialist politician.

Zoltán Lukács (MSZP)

Zoltán Lukács (MSZP) / Photo: MTI.

In addition to repealing the bill, Fidesz seems ready to make the decision “hurt” for some in the retail sector. The government will not be maintaining a compulsory 100% wage supplement that positively impacted those retail workers who did end up working on Sundays, on specific days or in stores that were exempt under the blue laws. MSZP is demanding that the wage supplement be maintained, but Fidesz indicated that it refuses to engage in any dialogue with the Socialists on the issue.

Jobbik made a point of noting in Parliament that it is Fidesz, which now represents “extremism” in Hungary’s legislature. “They sent in the thugs, in order to prevent a referendum. Are you sending in mercenaries, in order to place obstacles before the democracy that you so often claim to represent? What about the state’s monopoly when it comes to policing? I wonder who is actually the extremist in this Parliament?”–asked Jobbik MP János Volner.

Meanwhile, the Socialists have declared that they will continue collecting the 200,000 signatures required to hold a referendum, even though stores can now open legally, as early as this coming Sunday. József Tóbiás, MSZP’s president, suggested that the government’s sudden decision to hastily repeal the law leaves open the possibility that it will try to reintroduce it in the future.

I would be surprised if this turns out to be the case. I suspect that Mr. Orbán wants nothing more, than to move on and have this debacle recede into distant memory.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *