Government effort to prevent a referendum on Sunday store closings

There is  mounting evidence that closing super- and hyper-markets on Sundays was a singularly bad idea, just as everybody predicted from the start. It was not difficult to foresee that reducing the number of hours stores were open would result, on one hand, in fewer jobs and, on the other, in customer dissatisfaction. It was useless to lecture people who had become accustomed to the convenience of Sunday shopping about Austrian, French or German customers who seem to live satisfactory lives without stores being open on Sundays.

The whole idea was so bizarre and so many unforeseen difficulties cropped up during the legislative process that the law that eventually emerged was a monstrosity that required further and further corrections until no one really knew what the rules were. From the very beginning the great majority (68%-72%) of the population opposed the new law, although the January-February polls still showed that among Fidesz voters the majority (55%) swallowed the government propaganda about the beneficial effects of the new law. By now, even they have woken up. At the end of June, 63% of Fidesz voters wanted to say “no” to Sunday closings.

Opponents of the new law also predicted a loss of jobs, which was hotly denied by the government. Well, month after month there has been a notable decrease in retail sector jobs. Sunday closings began on March 15, and by mid-June 2,400 jobs had disappeared, mostly in supermarkets. A greater number of full-time employees had to work overtime.

The idea of Sunday closings has been a hobby horse of the Christian Democrats for a long time, but in the past Fidesz refused to support the idea. Even this time apparently a lot of Fidesz MPs had grave doubts about the efficacy of such a move, but in the last minute Viktor Orbán put considerable pressure on the Fidesz caucus, whose members as usual behaved like sheep and voted for the measure.

At the time of the debate over the Sunday closings I had difficulty understanding why Viktor Orbán decided to stand behind a measure that would surely be unpopular. Moreover, the bill was pushed through at a time when Fidesz’s support was waning. Within a few months Fidesz lost a third of its supporters. Why are they irritating even their own followers with such an unpopular move, I asked myself. The only thing I could think of was pressure on Viktor Orbán by the Christian Democrats (KDNP). After all, I reasoned, KDNP votes are vitally important to Fidesz. Most of the people I shared my idea with disagreed. KDNP’s sheer existence, they argued, depends on Viktor Orbán, so they would never dare to utter a peep. The only reason for the decision, they contended, was Orbán’s desire to put his supporter, László Baldauf, owner of the CBA supermarket chain, in a more competitive position. Most of the CBA stores are smaller than the cutoff for stores that had to be closed on Sundays. These smaller, so-called family stores could remain open and gain a huge advantage.

Well, my friends were right and I was wrong. About a week ago Baldauf gave an interview to Heti Válasz in which he made a careless remark which led the journalists of Index to the conclusion that it was Baldauf who planted the idea of Sunday closings in the head of government politicians and who managed to convince Viktor Orbán to stand behind the plan. Baldauf talked about his less than cordial relationship with Coop, another Hungarian chain of small stores. As an example, he recalled that “even in the interest of the Sunday closing we had difficulty cooperating.” This certainly sounds as if the initiative came from these Hungarian chains of smaller, franchised stores. Naturally, Baldauf considers such an interpretation unfounded.

Given public sentiment, if a referendum were allowed on the issue of Sunday closings the result would be a resounding victory for the anti-Sunday-closing forces and a terrible loss of face for the government. Fidesz, in general, doesn’t like referendums, and therefore parliament passed a law on referendums that pretty well precludes the possibility of holding any referendum the government doesn’t want. First of all, the process is dragged out by a provision that no new referendum question can be submitted until the fate of any previous submission has been decided. So far so good, but what has been happening is that all sorts of bogus questions are being submitted by phony parties or by individuals wanting to help the government. They are so poorly phrased that there is no way that the National Election Commission (Nemzeti Választási Bizottság/NVB) would ever approve them. Once the decision is reached that the question is unacceptable, the next person is ready with another bogus question. Timing is of the essence for those who are serious about holding a referendum.

MSZP politicians have been watching the website of the National Election Office (Nemzeti Választási Iroda/NVI) like hawks in the last few days because they figured that it was about time for a rejection of the last bogus question and they wanted to be first in line. Their question, ready to be submitted by Zoltán Lukács, deputy chairman of MSZP, was: “Do you agree that parliament should annul Law CII of 2014 that forbade performing work on Sundays in the retail sector?” As soon as the rejection of the previous submission was announced on the website of the National Election Office, they rushed over and handed their question to the authorities. Lukács triumphantly announced their success on ATV, only to find out a few hours later that they had lost the game again.

Ilona Pálffy, head of the office, announced that MSZP was too early. Although it is true, she admitted, that the announcement of the judgment had appeared on their website, it was not yet on the National Election Commission’s website. NVI’s announcement is not official, only NVB’s is. So she will send on another question submitted by Zoltán Vajda, a member of a civic group that calls itself Új Magyar Köztársaság Egyesület/ÚMKE, which was received by NVI a few minutes later. That question reads: “Do you agree that no law should limit the opening times of retail businesses?”

Palffy Ilona

All this happened on Sunday. The next day MSZP announced that they will sue because Ilona Pálffy acted illegally when she rejected their question and sent on another one that was received later. The announcement on NVI’s website appeared at 16:05, after Pálffy had received the decision hand-delivered by a messenger from NVB. MSZP resubmitted their question again on Tuesday. The Kúria will decide on the case.

What happened after that was also predictable. Yesterday Zoltán Vajda of ÚMKE screamed his head off for at least half an hour about MSZP’s dishonesty and their question’s deficiencies. He claimed that MSZP wants to bolster their popularity by being behind this important referendum. Instead, they should just let ÚMKE’s referendum question go ahead without any challenge.

I listened to his harangue with growing distress. His referendum question seems destined for rejection. Not only is it poorly constructed. One could argue that there are occasions when the government could restrict store openings, like Christmas Day or certain national holidays. I think MSZP’s question would have a much better chance  of passing the scrutiny of NVB.

I have another worry. Vajda and his group have submitted scores of referendum questions, of which NVB has already approved five. They are not the kind that would bring millions out to vote. I suspect that if their referendum question on store closings is accepted, it would simply be added to the otherwise innocuous list of already approved questions. In that case, I’m not even sure that the vote would be valid, due to lack of voter turnout.

All in all, I hope that MSZP’s referendum question will get the green light. Perhaps Hungarians will be able to vote on something their government clearly doesn’t want them to.

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July 8, 2015 7:37 pm

“during the legislative process that the law that eventually emerged was a monstrosity that required further and further corrections until no one really knew what the rules were.” Sounds like Hungary’s Basic Law. There are other similar mish-mash laws that do not get such a great attention, simply because it does not affect as many people. For example the exemption under the Tourist Tax is passed by the Budapest but only applies to a handful of districts. In some district there are no exceptions even when you visit family!

July 8, 2015 7:47 pm

Censorship of a new movie:

The movie “Zero” has a scene, in which an actor shoots at watermelons covered with photos of politicians, including Putin’s and Orban’s. The Hungarian “National Film Foundation” ordered the director to blur Orban’s face, as the director disclosed at the Karlovy Vary film festival two days ago.!s0

July 8, 2015 9:06 pm

If the rules are made purposely to be unfair to the big majority and opposition, DON”T PLAY BY THE RULES!

If the big majority of people are unhappy of the Sunday closing and at the same time willing to unite, all it takes is 200,000 people to block all streets to the Parliament, so none of the representatives and workers could enter or leave until the unfair law is rescinded.
At the same time another 200,000 people could force the Malls and Supermarkets to stay open after Saturday, by refusing to leave from them.
These people would not go to work, they would not shop and no taxes would be paid. Major Civil disobedience can break and cause the fall of any Government.

It is the duty of every citizen to watch what his Government is doing, voice his opposition or critical observations and if necessary force the Government to satisfy the big majority’s demands. There are very few citizens in Hungary, who do their duties for the benefit of improving the society.

No help will come from outside, none would be accepted, the Hungarians have to solve their own problems.

July 9, 2015 2:02 am

Civil disobedience is how Sunday shopping laws were eventually squashed in Canada. Retailers simply opened and challenged the government to apply the law. In some cases the police didn’t press charges because the prosecutors knew they wouldn’t get convictions. But to do this you need first a proper constitution and independent courts.

Sunday shopping laws are marginal annoying. Spar opened a number of express shops that cover the few forgotten items you might want to pick up and in some cases theses places are open 24 hours a day. I rarely step into a decrepit CBA and I know many that simply refuse to.

July 9, 2015 8:29 pm

But the peaceful Hungarians do not do such a move.
Disorderly behaviour is reserved to the Fradi thugs.
Others are just lying low.
No protests.
Where are the Dorottya Karsays?
Long gone to London?

July 9, 2015 12:34 am

I like Ilona Pálffy, she looks like a text book “BM-es” (ie. someone working for the Ministry of Interior, implying that the person is part of the secret services/deep state security establishment) type.

No wonder she was placed at the Constitutional Court as chief secretary (chief of staff) — she could report to Fidesz which has been controlling the security establishment for at least 10 years and which took over the control of the CC as well (even when Fidesz was in opposition).

She is a well-selected soldier who will reliably resist the “liberals” and defend the power of the Party.

July 9, 2015 3:06 am

Just a reminder:

Why do Hungarians need to shop on Sundays?
Because (unlike Germans. Austrians, Swiss people etc …) they work their a**es off in their second job on Saturdays – I just have to look at my neighbours to see that!

And shopping at a crappy CBA with a crappy selection of crappy stuff and with horrendous prices is totally a no-go, not only for us!

A bit OT:
In a few minutes I’ll start for the Tesco which in its latest ad (just like last week) contains a 1000 Forint coupon if you shop for more than 10 000 HUF – very nice for those which have the money …

July 9, 2015 5:16 am

As a nonconformist Christian, I have always argued that Sunday should be special because Church people and others make it so, not because the state tells us so. Retailers should be able to organise their hours to enable full-time workers to have at least one weekend day off, Sunday if they choose. In Britain, they are now considering ending Sunday trading restrictions, though the country still has a state church. In Hungary, as in so many things, the government seems determined to head in the opposite ‘illiberal’ direction, despite the supposed separation between Church and State. This has nothing to do with faith, which, by itself, should be enough for the churches to prosper, and be seen in action with regard to refugees, the poor and the homeless, who are with us always, not just on Sundays. We shouldn’t need the state to protect and encourage us in our endeavours of witness and worship.

July 9, 2015 6:02 am

Why a weekend day? A number of the boutique restaurants in Budapest are closed on Monday. Chick-o-fil in the US is closed on Sunday even in malls that have mandatory opening hours.

I worked in many offices where Jewish people took off Jewish holidays and the rest of us took the Christian ones. Guess what, no one cared and it worked! When in Muslim countries I’ve had to adjust my schedule to accommodate prayer times and that the work week starts on Sunday and ends on Thursday.

These things only seem to be a problem if one makes it a problem. Most of the problems come for narrow minded zealots that feel the need to control/micro manage everyone else. It’s unfortunate when these zealots actually make it into a position when they can act on their urges.

I, for one, have got better things to do with my time than worry that maybe people are shopping on the wrong day of the week.

The beauty of the Sunday shopping law is that it exposes how badly broken some of the processes are in this country in a fairly non-harmful way.

July 9, 2015 9:40 am

Re: ‘We shouldn’t need the state to protect and encourage us in our endeavours of witness and worship’

I agree on that. It would appear that Magyarorszag runs on ‘busybodies’ having much to do in all the nooks and crannies of the society. They put the ‘C’ in going after control.

July 9, 2015 6:46 am

Driving into town the Sunday before last, I saw that LIDL was open. It was heaving, not only in the main supermarket but also in a large tent that had been put up in the car park,selling off discontinued items. I wasn’t sure if this was a huge act of defiance, or whether the law had suddenly changed again! But seeing how many happy shoppers there were reminded me of how much Hungarians relied on Sunday opening. Yes, as Wolfi pointed out, for some people that is the only possible day they have time to do their shopping.

July 9, 2015 7:37 am

Afaik every store may open on up to four (or five?) Sundays – in our Interspar etc ad brochure they sometimes give the addresses of the open shops of that chain.

Andras Szanto
Andras Szanto
July 9, 2015 7:18 am

Concerning stores: not only the Sunday closing is a problem.
Another problem is the ban on large stores (Tesco) to keep open after 10 p.m.
MSZP party and the current article jointly seem to fail to pay attention to this second type of ban.
Something about the UK experience:

July 9, 2015 9:02 am

French hypermarchés are open on Sunday Mornings and even on some public holidays.

July 10, 2015 3:20 pm

Are there anybody still wondering, if there’s some kind of logic behind all of this?

Come on, dear folks, but really!

They doing it, because they can!


Because you/me/us let them to do it!!!!!

Do you really need another reason?

Stop these damned morons, throw them out from power and then you can make the rules!

Till then just as good as we keep our mouths shut regarding the subject – or start acting upon this idiocy. Otherwise nothing will change, I can promise this, taken full responsibility regarding the outcome..!

Lattmann Tamás (@LattmannTamas)
Dear Eva, let me put some facts straight on behalf of the ÚMKE. “His referendum question seems destined for rejection. Not only is it poorly constructed. One could argue that there are occasions when the government could restrict store openings, like Christmas Day or certain national holidays. I think MSZP’s question would have a much better chance of passing the scrutiny of NVB.” Without trying to prejudice about any possible decision of the NVB (previous experience shows that this is not the thing You want to do if You do not like work done in vain), the question of the MSZP is simply useless. According to that the Parliament should put the current act out of force, ending the obligatory sunday’s shop closure. Nice. And what comes after? Probaly a new act, under a new number, stipulating the same obligation, as the question does not prohibit it for the future, it just applies retroactively to the one that is already in force. You could argue that the Parliament would not do anything so shameless, but come on, You can not be serious about this, this parliamentary majority during the past 5 years has also used nearly all of the available… Read more »