Sunday 20 October 2019

Thousands protest over 'slave law' in Budapest


Taking a stand: Vice-chair of the Momentum party Anna Donath holds up a smoke grenade at protests in Budapest. Photo: AP
Taking a stand: Vice-chair of the Momentum party Anna Donath holds up a smoke grenade at protests in Budapest. Photo: AP

Balasa Cseko in Budapest

Viktor Orbán, the populist prime minister of Hungary, is facing a rare challenge to his grip on power as protesters demand an end to controversial labour reforms and what they call his assault on democracy.

Budapest, the Hungarian capital, has been rocked by near-daily protests since the country's parliament adopted a bill liberalising overtime rules last Wednesday. Opposition MPs have called for the prime minister to go.

As part of the reform, which critics have dubbed "the slave law", employers would be allowed to delay payment for overtime for up to three years.

Several thousand people gathered outside the offices of the state television broadcaster MTVA on the fifth night of protests, after two opposition MPs were filmed being physically thrown out of the building.

Ákos Hadházy and Bernadett Szél, who wanted the station to broadcast a list of campaigners' demands, called a protest in response, under the slogan: "They threw us out the door, but we'll go back in through the windows."

Ms Szél, who filed a complaint with the police, said: "We knew this was no longer a democracy, but we did not know it was already a dictatorship."

The demonstrations peaked on Sunday night, when up to 15,000 people, chanting "we want democracy" and "we want free media" gathered outside parliament.

Half a dozen opposition MPs, including Mr Hadházy and Ms Szél, led several thousand demonstrators on a march to the offices of MTVA. Some members of the crowd threw smoke bombs and paint when the station refused to broadcast their demands. Riot police responded with tear gas.

After the delegation of opposition MPs were allowed into the building to negotiate their demands, riot police guarding the headquarters outside used pepper spray on at least two occasions to repel protesters trying to break through the cordon.

Mr Hadházy read the demands to camera in the early hours of yesterday, but it was not clear whether they would be broadcast.

The demands included the repeal of the labour law and a controversial judicial reform that was passed on the same day, which paves the way for new "administrative courts" to oversee cases concerning matters such as public procurement or electoral disputes.

Opposition leaders said it would grant Mr Orbán near total control of the judicial system because László Trócsányi, the justice minister and a close ally of the prime minister, would oversee the courts.

They are also demanding police reforms and editorial impartiality at the country's state media outlets.

The government said the labour reform, which increases the annual overtime that employers can demand from 250 to 400 hours, was needed by companies short of manpower.

The protest finished at Parliament Square, where protesters chanted "Orbán get lost!"

"They don't negotiate with anyone. They just do whatever they want," said one protester, Zoli, a transport worker.

"They steal everything. It's intolerable. It cannot go on."

Protests in the past week have been the most violent in Hungary for over a decade, with dozens arrested and at least 14 police injured.

Anger over the legislation has prompted opposition parties across the spectrum, who accuse Mr Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party of steering Hungary toward authoritarianism, to join forces.

Pro-government public and commercial media have portrayed the protesters as anarchists and "mercenaries of George Soros". Hungarian-born US billionaire Mr Soros has long been accused by Mr Orbán of plotting to destabilise Hungary. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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