A few days ago I recalled an interview with a couple of talking heads who complained about the pettiness of the political issues the opposition was wasting its time on, like the closing of larger retail stores on Sunday. Why have a political debate about such a ridiculous topic? Well, the question of whether large supermarkets and big box stores should be open or closed turned out to be a much larger issue than these people thought. After thirteen months of wrangling and scheming, the Orbán government threw in the towel. The 2015 law that forbade these stores to be open on Sunday will most likely be repealed tomorrow.
The news spread rapidly. Libération’s Budapest correspondence, Florence La Bruere, published a detailed article on the Orbán government’s decision to reintroduce Sunday closings 25 years after the change of regime. In the article she quotes a woman who told her that “under socialism, everything was closed on weekends. After the fall of communism, stores could be open on Sundays and we really enjoyed that. It was a symbol of freedom.” It was this feeling of freedom that was taken away from Hungarians, who overwhelmingly opposed the new law.
Ever since November 2014 a tug-of-war has been waged between the government, which stubbornly insisted on defending a bad decision, and the people this government allegedly represents. Numerous attempts were made to force the Orbán administration to allow a referendum on the question, all to no avail. At least until now, when the highest court of the land, the Kúria, overturning the decision of both the National Election Office and the National Election Commission, allowed the socialists to begin a drive to collect the necessary number of signatures. The government’s reaction was swift. Fearing defeat at the polls, they opted to repeal the law that Fidesz-KDNP had enacted in November 2014.
From the beginning there was an ongoing debate about why Viktor Orbán agreed to the demand of KDNP, the Christian Democratic People’s Party. KDNP is a party that doesn’t really exist. But its phony parliamentary delegation allows the right wing to be over-represented on committees. I suggested that the leaders of this party, which normally follows Viktor Orbán without question, decided to make an issue of the Sunday store closings. They most likely handed a reluctant Orbán an ultimatum: if Fidesz doesn’t cave on this issue, they might not support a bill that is of great importance to Fidesz. My opponents suspected that the key to this case was not so much the Christian Democrats’ insistence but pressure coming from two Hungarian-owned supermarket chains, operating as franchises. They lobbied for a law that would be advantageous to smaller stores that can remain open on Sundays and disadvantageous to the large foreign-owned chains. Of course, it is possible, even likely, that pressure came from these sources, but given the reaction of the Catholic Church and KDNP there can be no doubt that the Christian Democratic (non)-party had a major role to play here.
KDNP’s fight for Sunday closings began in 2000, and a year later the Conference of Catholic Bishops joined forces with the party. One must keep in mind that the chairman of KDNP, Zsolt Semjén, once described his party as the political arm of the Hungarian Catholic Church. Ever since that time Sunday store closings remained an important demand of the Christian Democrats as well as the Catholic Church. In April 2011 they managed to convince the national economic ministry to conduct a study which, unfortunately for them, showed that the issue was both politically and economically sensitive. It would be unpopular, and it would deprive the budget of about 50 billion forints in taxes. So, for almost four years the issue was not on the agenda. Sometime in early November 2014, however, Viktor Orbán unexpectedly decided to support the idea. The bill was signed into law on December 16, 2014, and beginning on the following March 15 supermarkets, big box stores, and many other retail stores closed their doors on most Sundays.
The repeal of the law on Sunday closings sheds light on decision-making in Orbán’s government. On Friday, on Hungarian state radio, Viktor Orbán still talked about the desirability of Sunday closings and in fact revealed that his government in the past few years has been trying to find ways to extend work-free Sundays to encompass not only the retail trade but other sectors as well. He said, however, that they will take a look at the economic consequences of the current practice on Monday. I got the impression that if the economic indicators were favorable, the present law would remain in force. Moreover, he added, they have “plenty of time” to make a decision. In one sentence that most people overlooked, however, Orbán said that “in light of the debate [in the cabinet meeting] we will decide on the right political conduct.” So, after all, it was not to be a purely economic decision.
This morning Bence Tuzson, undersecretary in charge of government communication, seemed not to have been updated since Friday. In an interview on ATV’s Start he fiercely defended the current practice of Sunday closings. A couple of hours later, Sunday closings were on their way out.
Although I’m sure he tried, Viktor Orbán couldn’t convince the KDNP to support the repeal of the bill their party found so important for ideological reasons. Only about half an hour after the announcement of the decision by Antal Rogán, Népszabadság learned that Péter Harrach, leader of the KDNP caucus, indicated that their MPs will not vote for the repeal. “The question has been a matter of principle for the last seven years,” he said. Soon after the announcement, the Conference of Hungarian Catholic Bishops complained that the government hadn’t asked their opinion. András Veres, president of the Conference, added that “as a Christian and as a bishop of the Church [he finds] the present decision of the government mistaken and outright wrong.” The same Veres, according to HVG, declared that he “hasn’t heard of anyone who died of starvation because he couldn’t buy food on Sunday.”
It is not only the Christian Democrats and the Catholic Church who are against the decision to repeal the law. According to rumor, János Lázár is considering not voting for the bill that most likely will reach the floor tomorrow, although Orbán warned the Fidesz ministers that not voting for the bill might mean losing their jobs. Many rumors are baseless, but perhaps this time there is something to this gossip because Nándor Csepreghy, Lázár’s deputy who is close to his boss, indicated that the younger generation of Fidesz politicians was ready to continue the fight despite societal opposition and pressure from the opposition. Lázár certainly belongs to the younger generation of Fidesz leaders.
As for the economic side of the question, it is hard to decide whether Sunday closings hurt retail business or not. Those who claim it did point out that today there are 8,000 fewer employees in retail trade than at the beginning of 2015. Moreover, they add, in the last year alone about 800 small stores had to close. They argue that the small stores didn’t gain at the expense of large foreign chains, as the government intended. On the contrary, they lost customers. The real beneficiaries, the argument goes, were precisely those large supermarkets and big box stores the government wanted to discriminate against. On the other side, the argument goes something like this. Businesses have only gained by Sunday closings. Their turnover last year was 6% higher than the year before. But the increase in turnover might be explained by higher real wages and the hookup of cash registers with the National Tax Office. And, at the same time, the shuttering of many smaller stores may have nothing to do with Sunday closings.
The wisdom of the repeal is obvious. As Magyar Nemzet rightly pointed out, Fidesz isn’t so much afraid of the result of the referendum as the “road to it.” If a referendum were held, the opposition parties would have three months to campaign in favor of the repeal and against the government. Although the retreat is a loss of face for Fidesz, given its current problems it is better for the government to back down than to slug it out.
Now the opposition should turn to the role played by the officials of the National Election Office and the National Election Committee. The Kúria clearly stated that these officials are unfit to lead an independent body that is supposed to guard the purity of the elections. How can we trust the results of future elections if the decisions of these people are guided by the government’s interests? The opposition parties should also force the government to begin a serious investigation into the circumstances of the February 23 events at the National Election Office. The likelihood of Fidesz involvement on some level in the skinheads’ appearance at the Election Office is pretty obvious to everybody. If the opposition parties put as much effort into these two projects as MSZP did in validating its referendum question, victory might be possible. Fidesz is becoming vulnerable.