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?”
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.