Tag Archives: Sunday closing

Fidesz heavyweights against Viktor Orbán

Who would have thought that Viktor Orbán’s decision to repeal the law on Sunday store closings would create such turmoil in government circles? Deep divisions surfaced not only between Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) but also within Fidesz itself. To my great surprise some very important political leaders–like János Lázár, Zoltán Balog, and László Kövér–turned out to be such staunch supporters of this unpopular measure that they opted to stay away to avoid voting for the bill. Lázár and Balog made clear that their absence must be interpreted as a “no” vote. All three have been fined 100,000 ft. for not following the compulsory voting procedure for members of the Fidesz delegation.

We have to keep in mind is that the present Hungarian government is not a coalition. It is a “pártszövetség” (party alliance), which gives the Christian Democrats very little room for political maneuvering. The actual political strength of the party is minuscule. The party is nothing more than a political club whose largest “victory” was in 1994 when it received 5.7% of the votes. Four years later, with 2.59%, it ceased to be represented in parliament. Then, after eight years of inactivity, it resurfaced as part of Fidesz in 2006. The revival of the party and the fact that Fidesz essentially sponsored it was the result of Zsolt Semjén’s clever politicking. Once the party alliance was in place, he managed to get a fair number of government positions for KDNP members who, by the way, are often also members of Fidesz. One such person was Rózsa Hoffmann, who failed miserably as undersecretary of education. Bence Rétvári is another Christian Democrat who is now rather unsuccessfully battling with the teachers’ unions.

In addition to the failed “education reform,” KDNP had a couple of other issues they felt strongly about. One of these was the formulation of a new law on the churches. But after they put a lot of work into drafting a bill, Fidesz took over the project and completely rewrote it. The party also felt strongly about a so-called family bankruptcy law, which turned out to be so poorly formulated that after the government set aside half a billion dollars for it, only 100 families signed up. And, of course, the crown jewel of KDNP’s political agenda was the Sunday closing of retail stores. That turned out to be a failure too. Once Viktor Orbán was faced with a likely referendum on the issue, he quickly decided to repeal the legislation and reopen stores on Sunday.

In the last few weeks the Orbán government has been faced with two huge headaches: the revolt of the teachers and the upheaval surrounding István Nyakó’s referendum question. One wonders whether Viktor Orbán might not be re-weighing the benefit of having KDNP as an “ally.” At the moment it is only a pain in the neck.

I assume that Viktor Orbán is clever enough to make KDNP even more marginal in the “alliance” than it is now. The problem is that there is a cleavage even within Fidesz itself when it comes to the Sunday closing issue. As far as I can see, the Fidesz bigwigs’ opposition is not ideological as KDNP’s is. For many Christian Democratic politicians Sunday is a holy day when good Catholics are supposed to go to church. So, they look on the legislation as, at least in part, a religious issue. The Fidesz rebels apparently disagree with Orbán’s pandering to the voters. As a populist his main concern is the government/party’s popularity. If public opinion polls provided by the party’s own think tank, Századvég, indicate that Sunday store closing is not popular and that the opposition will rally the dissatisfied, it must be abolished. Apparently, it is this totally pragmatic approach that bothers László Kövér, János Lázár, and Zoltán Balog.

Viktor Orbán and János Lázar at the plenary session on Monday / MTI Photo Tibor Illyés

Viktor Orbán and János Lázar at the plenary session on Monday.  MTI / Photo Tibor Illyés

According to 444.hu, over the weekend the highest officeholders of Fidesz got together. Both Kövér and Balog expressed their strong opposition to a retreat on the issue. Their argument was based on principles. Fidesz, according to them, is a conservative Christian party which made the decision out of conviction, and it should stick with it even at the cost of a loss of popularity. On Monday, during the cabinet meeting, the debate continued. At that meeting Lázár supported Balog and posed the theoretical question: “If the people don’t want stadiums, will we start demolishing them?” A few hours later, at the meeting of the Fidesz caucus, Kövér expressed his disgust at the decision.

At the moment it is difficult to know how serious a rift we are witnessing and where it may lead. I wonder, for example, how long Orbán will put up with Lázár’s less than loyal comments and his open disagreements with the prime minister. Perhaps Lázár thinks that he is irreplaceable, but we know that nobody is. I find it interesting that on his way to the Voivodina (Serbia) last night Viktor Orbán stopped in Hódmezővásárhely to have dinner at the Lázár house. In fact, he spent the night there. I suspect this was not a social call but a heated discussion of their disagreement over fundamental issues.

Many commentators consider the repeal of the law on Sunday store closings a huge defeat for MSZP and the other opposition parties, which have been deprived of at least three months of anti-government campaigning and possible victory at the polls. This is not how László Kövér sees the retreat. He considers Orbán’s decision “a huge mistake which cannot be left without comment.” He believes that Fidesz “ceded the unattended field to the left opposition, which can now wage a bait campaign against [them].” Fidesz was unable to convince the people of the correctness of their original decision, and if they don’t do better in the future they will be in trouble at the 2018 election.

And just one more word about our inimitable László Kövér. He was outraged that women were disproportionately against the Sunday closing. He said that they should show more solidarity toward those who must work on Sundays. This interview, which originally appeared in Magyar Idők, was summarized in HVG where, unlike in Magyar Idők, people can comment. Most of the comments were negative, many expressing their dislike of Kövér. Not surprisingly many women commented. One woman wrote: “I would love to be the wife of Kövér for a short while.” To which another wrote: “Me too! Lucrezia Borgia …. :-)”

April 13, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s lost battle: Sunday store closings

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.

Because of lack of common sense Closed Opening: Uncertain

Because of lack of common sense
Opening: Uncertain

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.

April 11, 2016

A new chapter in Hungarian politics?

I will try to cover two topics today, although practically every time I decide to do that I discover about half way through that I was too ambitious. This time, however, I really would like to talk to about two new developments. The first is the announcement by Piroska Galló that negotiations between her union and the government broke down and so a nationwide one-day strike will take place on April 20. The other astonishing news is that István Nyakó’s referendum question sailed through the Kúria. MSZP can begin collecting the necessary 200,000 signatures to enable them to hold a referendum on the question of Sunday closings.

Since I have followed the teachers’ revolt very closely and often have engaged in discussions with commenters, I think it is clear to all regular readers of Hungarian Spectrum that I consider this movement much more than a run-of-the-mill teachers’ strike of the kind that flare up in communities worldwide. As I have repeated often enough, the goal of the Orbán government’s educational policy is to transform the new generation into cogs in the wheel of the “illiberal state.” Just as the Bolsheviks wanted to create a new Soviet man, so Viktor Orbán wants a certain type of citizen. The school system introduced in 2013 feeds into Viktor Orbán’s system of “national cooperation.” Revolt against it is insurgency against the world Orbán has forced on the Hungarians.

In the last few days we have seen a concerted effort on the part of the government to set the two trade unions, PSZ and PDSZ, against each other, with not much success. Undersecretary László Palkovics went so far as to invite László Mendrey to the ministry for a discussion on the impending strike, but when he and his team got there they discovered that instead of one-to-one strike negotiations the complete membership of the round table was waiting for them. The attempt failed. So tonight PDSZ, PSZ’s strike committee, the Tanítanék Mozgalom, and the Civil Public Education Platform will hold a joint meeting. It looks as if all the organizations involved in the movement are cooperating and will support the strike. According to Piroska Galló, support for the strike among teachers is substantial. The only question is how effective the strike will be and, even more important, how much outside help the teachers will receive. If dissatisfaction spreads to other groups and public support is overwhelming, the government will have to offer substantial concessions, which can undermine the very foundation of the system.

The other important topic is MSZP’s referendum question–“Do you agree that parliament should annul Law CII of 2014 that forbade performing work on Sundays in the retail sector?”–was approved by the Kúria, the supreme court of the land. This decision was totally unexpected. Even the MSZP leadership, whose members kept repeating that the case was so clear cut that the Kúria couldn’t do anything else, were deep down not at all sure. They were ready for rejection. For the last three days MSZP representatives stood in front of the National Election Office to prevent a repeat of what happened last time when about a dozen skinheads prevented István Nyakó, an MSZP politician, from handing in his referendum question.

Yesterday I watched an interview with a particularly obnoxious talking head, who went on and on about the pettiness of Hungarian politics. This came up in the middle of a conversation about the tenth anniversary of the famous Gyurcsány-Orbán debate, which was such a fiasco for Orbán that from that moment on he refused to yield to any demand for a debate. Our talking head asserted that today there would be no topic for a meaningful debate. What would the candidates talk about? Sunday closings? Something that trivial?

I would rather side with the editorial of Magyar Narancs titled “Hungarian politics revived.” The author defines politics as “competition between different modes of management of public affairs.” He claims that politics in this sense came to a halt in 2010. Now it looks as if there might be a change. After this decision “we have reason to be happy” was the last sentence of the article.

The happiest of all are the MSZP politicians, who scored a huge victory. They showed themselves to be so dogged that eventually the government ran out of steam. After the skinheads it was difficult to come up with yet another obstacle. I would be very surprised if MSZP’s popularity would not rise substantially in the coming months. All the criticism of the party’s hesitancy and its political ineptitude will fade if MSZP politicians manage to keep up their present energy and political finesse. At last here is an opposition party that managed to defeat the state machinery, which was bent on preventing a referendum that would question a decision of the government.

MSZP’s victory might also improve the generally lethargic mood of the population: the situation is not hopeless after all. Today’s triumph will most likely help the mood in opposition circles in general. Jobbik already announced that they will join MSZP and will assist in the collection of signatures, and they will encourage their followers to support the cause. DK will do the same. Zsolt Gréczy, spokesman of DK, called the Kúria’s decision “another deep fissure in the Orbán regime.”

István Nyakó and Sándor Lukács / Photo: Miklós Szabó, Népszabadság

MSZP MPs István Nyakó and Sándor Lukács / Photo: Miklós Szabó, Népszabadság

As things now stand, MSZP is planning a repeat of the Fidesz “referendum of the three yeses,” as the 2008 referendum is called. In that case, on Fidesz’s insistence, citizens had to vote on whether they don’t want to pay tuition fees, don’t want a €1 co-pay at doctors’ visits, and don’t want to pay €1 a day during hospital stays. Not surprising, by an overwhelming majority they said “yes, we don’t want to pay” to all three questions. The result of the referendum was interpreted at the time as a rejection of the Gyurcsány government and directly led to the prime minister’s resignation a few months later.

What József Tóbiás, MSZP chairman, is now talking about is another “referendum of the three yeses” because, in addition to Nyakó’s question on Sunday closings, Zoltán Gőgös (MSZP PM) submitted a question on the fate of the agricultural lands currently owned by the state, and Zoltán Kész, an independent MP, submitted a question on the remuneration of business leaders of state enterprises. Yes, says Tóbiás, people should say yes to all these questions: the stores should be open on Sunday, the sale of state lands should come to a halt, and no state business leader should receive more than 2 million forints a month. Indeed, these questions should be very popular with the electorate. Gőgös and Kész collected 50,000 signatures in a single day, and therefore I have no doubt that collecting another 200,000 will be a cinch. Meeting the requirement of about 4 million valid votes, however, might be another matter. The Orbán administration changed the law on referendums. Instead of requiring a turnout of 25% to have a valid referendum, they raised the requirement to 50%, which makes the task almost impossible.

According to some commentators Fidesz has only two options. Either it encourages its followers not to vote or it tries to take the wind out of the sails of the opposition by repealing the law on Sunday closings. The second option would mean a loss of prestige for Orbán, which would be tough for the prime minister to swallow.

Gábor Vona of Jobbik suggested that Viktor Orbán’s own referendum on compulsory quotas should be added to the three current questions. Would that help or hinder the cause of the opposition leaders? We know that the government has overwhelming support for its anti-refugee stance, so the administration might be able to convince large numbers of people to go to the polls to cast their ballot in favor of its referendum question. Would that boost the chances of the three questions submitted by Nyakó, Gőgös, and Kész? And if it does, would Fidesz want that outcome? I’m really curious what Fidesz’s next step will be.

April 6, 2016

Government conspiracy to prevent a referendum

Critics of the democratic opposition in Hungary often charge both journalists and politicians with abandoning stories about the corrupt Orbán government. A huge scandal surfaces and is on the front page of every newspaper, but a few days later the whole thing is forgotten. The dogged perseverance so necessary for both reporters and politicians seems to be missing from Hungarian political life, although in the few cases where it was at work the administration had to retreat.

The most spectacular success of that kind of investigative journalism was the resignation of President Pál Schmidt after it became known that his so-called doctoral dissertation was a Hungarian translation of a book originally written in French. HVG, the paper that received the original scoop, simply didn’t let the issue die. They kept at it. Although it took four months, eventually Schmidt was told to retire quietly. I’ll bet that Viktor Orbán has regretted that decision ever since. In fact, in the last couple of years he has smuggled Schmidt back into the government circle. Schmidt received government assignments in connection with Hungary’s bid for the 2024 Olympic games.

It seems that this same ability to stay with a project and see it through to completion is now being exhibited by MSZP’s István Nyakó, the man who was prevented from submitting his referendum question on Sunday retail store closings to the National Election Office (NVH). Of course, he needed the assistance of the media. Both HVG and Index have been giving ample coverage to the story. Today, after a month of back and forth, both NVH and the National Election Committee (NVB) finally decided to ask the police to investigate the skinheads’ role in the events that allowed Mrs. Erdősi, wife of Herceghalom’s mayor and a devoted admirer of Viktor Orbán, to turn in her question about the Sunday closings while the hired heavies prevented Nyakó from submitting his question. The very fact that the case has gotten this far is an unexpected success, which says a lot about the state of democracy in Hungary. Or, rather the lack thereof. A dictatorial regime like Viktor Orbán’s does not tolerate dissent and will do everything in its power to stifle it.

István Nyakó in front of the National Election Office / 24per7

István Nyakó in front of the National Election Office / 24per7

I devoted several posts to the topic of the seemingly hopeless task of submitting a referendum question on the Sunday closings issue. Sunday closings are very unpopular, and if such a referendum were actually held it is quite possible that the closings would be overwhelmingly rejected, which could be interpreted as a rejection of Viktor Orbán’s whole political system. Thus, a variety of tricks have been employed to prevent such an outcome. This cat and mouse game has now been going on for about a year. Thanks to Nyakó’s insistence and the media’s help, today we have some evidence that there was a joint effort between Fidesz and individuals allegedly representing independent agencies, like NVH and NVB and the National Data Protection and Freedom of Information Authority (NAIH), to prevent something that is against the wishes of the government. Such a concerted effort is less kindly called a “conspiracy,” which is a very serious crime.

The alleged crime took place on February 23. Within a few hours important information emerged, including the identity of Mrs. Erdősi and the connection between the skinheads of the Ferencváros (Fradi) Football Association, and Gábor Kubatov, president of Fradi, vice-chairman of Fidesz, and the maverick election campaign manager of the party. A few days later I followed up my initial post with more facts. Since then even more details have emerged. I’m pretty certain that by now we have a very good idea of how the ruse was conceived and executed. The only thing missing is definite proof, which can be obtained only if the police take the investigation seriously.

What we know now is that the chairmen of both NVH and NVB hid an important piece of evidence: a seven-hour surveillance video from outside the building of NVH. Members of the election committee today claim that they would have immediately launched an investigation if they had had the opportunity to see the video, which shows the arrival of the skinheads and the distribution of copies of Mrs. Erdősi’s referendum question enclosed in plastic folders. Thus, Mrs. Erdősi and the skinheads worked together. They were one team. Initially, however, Ilona Pálffy of NVH and Sándor Patyi, chairman of NVB, convinced members of the committee that there was nothing interesting on the video. Only the lone MSZP representative on the committee insisted on looking at it, but he was voted down by the Fidesz-Jobbik majority. Moreover, Pálffy and Patyi also “forgot” to submit the video along with other documents when the Kúria wanted to take a second look at the case. So, from what we know now there is a good likelihood of Pálffy’s and Patyi’s involvement in the conspiracy.

There is also the possibility that one or more employees of the National Data Protection and Freedom of Information Authority (NAIH) are also involved. What does this office have to do with referendums? Anyone who wants to submit a referendum question has to start at NAIH in order to receive permission to collect the necessary 20-30 supporting signatures. MSZP members in the past received these permissions after a fairly lengthy waiting period. MSZP’s Zoltán Lukács, who submitted a referendum question earlier, asked for permission on January 27 and received the answer on February 18. Nyakó’s request was submitted on February 12, and he had to wait 10 days for an answer. Behold, Mrs. Erdősi’s application arrived on February 21, a Sunday, and a day later permission was granted. The deadline to submit a referendum question was February 23, Tuesday. Someone at NAIH clearly wanted to expedite matters to make sure that Mrs. Erdősi would be able to turn in her referendum question in time.

Now it is up to the police and the prosecutors to handle the case. Odds are, if recent history is any guide, that the case will never be solved.

March 31, 2016

A doomed referendum to dismantle Viktor Orbán’s system

I’m sure that few regular readers of Hungarian Spectrum have forgotten the story of the mad dash to be the first to submit a referendum question to the National Election Committee on the Sunday closing of retail stores. The Orbán government obviously doesn’t want such a referendum and, in my opinion at least, MSZP’s question was good enough that approval by the Kúria would have been forthcoming. That is, if the Election Committee had accepted it. The socialists’ question was rejected twice: once in favor of another question on the same issue formulated by the Új Magyar Köztársaság Egyesület (ÚMKE), a civic group, and the second time for one that didn’t have a chance of ever passing the scrutiny of the Kúria.

The socialists’ question was: “Do you agree that parliament should annul Law CII of 2014 that forbade performing work on Sundays in the retail sector?” While ÚMKE’s read:  “Do you agree that no law should limit the opening times of retail businesses?” At that time I expressed my worry that since ÚMKE had already submitted a number of referendum proposals, of which the National Election Committee had approved four, if the committee approved this proposal, the organizers of the referendum would add the very important question of Sunday closings to the other four. And the other questions are not the kinds that would bring millions out to vote. Therefore I preferred the question submitted by the socialists because, if approved, it would have stood alone as a single referendum question.

Viktor Orbán knows the power of a referendum. After all, it was the 2008 referendum, initiated by Fidesz, on tuition and co-pay that sealed the fate of his adversary, Ferenc Gyurcsány. He wanted to make sure that such a calamity will not befall him. He changed the law on holding referendums. While before 2 million valid votes were enough for passage, he doubled the requirement: now one needs 4 million votes. ÚMKE’s questions would never bring out that size of a crowd. In order to have a valid referendum the opposition would have to come up with one important question that has a chance of gathering very large support. Just for comparison, at the 2008 referendum that truly moved the population, only 3.3 million people showed up to vote. I believed and still believe that the issue of Sunday closing is one that just may have a chance of being a valid referendum and that perhaps could also seal the fate of Viktor Orbán.

How could Fidesz go wrong: no to paying a penny

“Responsible decision” How could Fidesz go wrong? “No” to paying a penny

Why am I returning to this topic? The answer is simple. Although the referendum question on Sunday closing is still in limbo, ÚMKE went ahead and began collecting signatures for their four questions: (1) to raise the compulsory age of school attendance, (2) free lunches for needy children, (3) abolishing compulsory membership in professional associations, and (4) termination of paying pensions to serving members of parliament. These are the questions with which ÚMKE wants to start “dismantling the system” of Viktor Orbán.

The collection of signatures began three weeks ago, and they have managed to collect 46,000 so far. There are still 154,000 to go. Zoltán Vajda, one of the organizers, told Budapest Beacon that all democratic parties, with the exception of the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), pitched in. MSZP managed to collect 16,000, the Magyar Szolidaritás Párt got 9,000, and the Magyar Liberális Párt and the Modern Magyarország Mozgalom (Moma) added a few hundred.

Why did DK keep away? After all, DK has been the most zealous on the question of cooperation with other parties. Ferenc Gyurcsány often expressed his belief that without unity of the democratic parties Fidesz cannot be defeated. I can think of only one possible explanation for why the leadership of DK came to the conclusion that even if ÚMKE’s referendum questions have the support of the necessary 200,000 people, the chance of a successful referendum is practically nil. In fact, if the turnout is low, as I assume it will be, it will actually strengthen the position of Fidesz by showing the weakness of the democratic opposition. There was a reason why the National Election Committee approved these relatively unimportant questions while making every effort to block the question on Sunday closing.

Yes, I think there is a real chance of actually hurting the cause of the anti-Orbán forces by supporting this somewhat amateurish attempt. One cannot “dismantle” the Orbán regime by asking people to vote on issues such as compulsory membership in professional associations. ÚMKE would have been better off sitting down with all the democratic parties and supporting one well-formulated referendum on Sunday closings. I’m sure that all parties would have endorsed such a move. More than 75 percent of Hungarians look upon Sunday store closings as a symbol of Fidesz arrogance and corruption at their expense. What happened here is a perfect example of the mistaken notion widespread in Hungary that civil groups with no political experience can successfully “dismantle” the Orbán regime. Unfortunately, it might serve Fidesz and hurt the democratic side.

Ad hoc hurdles to holding a referendum on Sunday store closings

It’s becoming crystal clear that Viktor Orbán will do everything in his power to prevent a referendum on the question of Sunday store closings. The reason is most likely his fear that, in spite of the tough conditions the government enacted for a referendum to be declared valid, there is a good likelihood that a referendum on this issue would bring out more than the requisite half of the approximately eight million citizens eligible to vote. Polls show that 70-80% of Hungarians, quite independently of party sympathies, find the Sunday closings introduced on March 15, 2015 cumbersome and annoying, especially after having been accustomed to liberal store hours in the last twenty years or so.

About two weeks ago I described in some detail the latest attempt to submit a valid referendum question on abrogating the law that made Sunday closing compulsory for the majority of outlets selling food. To recap briefly, no referendum question can be submitted to the National Election Office, which is a kind of clearing house, while another referendum request on the same issue is still on the docket of the National Election Commission (NVB). Once the field is cleared, the new petitioners begin a mad dash to submit their own versions of the referendum question. In this case, as soon as a referendum question on Sunday closings was rejected by the NVB, the Hungarian socialist party (MSZP) and a civic group called Új Magyar Köztársaság Egyesület (ÚMK) both tried to submit questions. MSZP lost out because, according to the head of the National Election Office, they turned in their question immediately after the decision regarding an earlier question appeared on the website of the National Election Office. They should have waited, she argued, until the decision also appeared on the site of the NVB. Therefore, she said she would send on ÚMK’s question, not MSZP’s.

But this was not the end of the story. It turned out that a third person also submitted a referendum question on the same day. It was his question that was eventually accepted for consideration.

In order to understand this complicated story, we have to go back to the day that the MSZP referendum question was certified by the National Election Office. MSZP’s version was submitted in the name of Zoltán Lukács, one of the vice-chairmen of the party, and was delivered by András Litresits, a lawyer who is MSZP’s delegate to NVB. When he arrived, he saw a man standing in front of the security guard’s cubicle. He didn’t have to sign in. He already had a valid pass to the building. So he proceeded upstairs and handed the referendum question to the appropriate official, who stamped it, indicating the exact time of the document’s arrival.

It turned out that the man standing in front of the security guard’s cubicle was a certain Zoltán Wodicska, who is a member of Andor Schmuck’s Hungarian Social Democratic Party. Schmuck is, as far as I’m concerned, a political adventurer who has pulled quite a few dirty tricks in the past few years. For example, he was the one who registered the name “Együtt 2014 Párt” before Gordon Bajnai and Viktor Szigetvári got around to registering the name of their party. They then had to scramble around for another name that included the word “együtt” (together).

Yesterday the National Election Commission decided that because Litresits had a pass to the building and did not have to make a stop at the security guard’s cubicle, he had an undue advantage. His petition would therefore not be accepted. Wodicska was declared the winner even though the Election Office found his question “Do you agree that Sunday should be a day of rest for everybody and that stores be closed?” ambiguous. Ambiguous? I think it is outright nonsensical. It is impossible to guarantee everybody a day of rest on Sunday. Wodicska is obviously one of those people who are determined to delay the referendum by submitting questions that are guaranteed not to be approved by the Kúria, Hungary’s supreme court. Whether these people are hired by the Orbán government, as some people suspect, or simply act on their own is hard to say. In any case, the Kúria has 90 days to decide whether Wodicska’s referendum question passes muster or not. It will not, but for three months the question of the referendum is set aside again.

András Patyi, chairman of NVB, is a close associate of Viktor Orbán

András Patyi, chairman of NVB, is a close associate of Viktor Orbán

And what, you may ask, happened to the third contestant, the one who was originally declared the “winner”? NVB decided that posting the decision not to accept a referendum question on the website of the National Election Office (not the National Election Commission) is the signal that the court procedure is over. NVB also decided that the petition of the person who enters the building of the Election Office first will be sent on, no matter when that document is time stamped. Zoltán Lukács, who submitted MSZP’s question, rightly pointed out that this ruling shows a peculiar mindset. Let’s assume that two people enter the building at the same time but that one of them cannot find the right office in that large building. What will happen then? My hunch is that the decision would depend on who the two people are. The person who knows his way around, such as the MSZP “courier,” would probably be deemed to have an undue advantage. It’s easy to create rationalizations for not accepting any referendum question that might actually get on the ballot.

A woman who called into KlubRádió today offered a convincing analysis of NVB’s ad hoc decision. She is certain that a referendum will never be held in Hungary as long as Viktor Orbán is prime minister because he remembers only too well the outcome of the referendum held on March 9, 2008, which resulted in the fall of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány a year later. The reforms the second Gyurcsány government introduced in 2006-2007 were opposed by Fidesz from the very beginning.The party eventually succeeded in putting forth three questions regarding the introduction of (1) tuition fees in colleges and universities, (2) a co-payment at doctor’s offices, and (3) a daily fee at hospitals. With a very large turnout (50.9%) 82% of the voters said no to these fees, although they were minimal amounts. It was a reaffirmation that a large segment of society didn’t approve of the reforms introduced by the government. The argument goes that a referendum on Sunday store closings would produce similar results, and it would signify more than people’s annoyance with Sunday restrictions. It would be, just as in Gyurcsány’s case, a massive opposition to the government itself.

Hungary’s pending blue law

For weeks we have been reading about the Christian Democrats’ brainstorm to close stores over a certain size on Sundays. This despite the fact that in the past twenty years shoppers have gotten used to stores being open on Sundays; shopping has become a family affair. Everybody can have a say in the purchase of large items: a new refrigerator, stove, TV set, or new furniture. And while they are out shopping on Sunday, the family often has lunch in one of the malls or goes to the latest movie.  People like the convenience, and I’m certain they will be mighty unhappy if and when the Fidesz and KDNP majority votes to close targeted stores on Sundays. People expect their options to increase, not decrease.

Until now it looked as if Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz leadership would not endorse the KDNP plan. Mihály Varga, minister of national economy, said that, given the touch-and-go economic situation in the country, taking away the opportunity to conduct business seven days a week was not a good idea. Associations representing the merchants reported that Sunday is their third busiest shopping day. They figured that about 12,000 jobs would be lost if they were forced to close their doors. Even Viktor Orbán announced a couple of weeks ago that the question should be discussed with everybody involved because the Christian Democrats consulted only those organizations that supported their position: right-wing trade unions and groups like the association of large families who backed their plan for ideological reasons.

The way the proposal was originally worded, the bill discriminated against foreign-owned large chains since only those stores larger than 400m² that were not family-owned and operated would have been forced to close. The bill would not have applied to Hungarian franchises such as CBA, a chain of smaller stores owned by three fanatic supporters of the current Hungarian government: László Baldauf, Vilmos Lázár, and his brother Zoltán. These small stores can’t compete successfully with the large chains. Their selection is limited and their prices are higher. If the large chains were forced to close on Sundays, the small CBA stores would reap the benefit. I suspect that Fidesz’s initial hesitation was due to their recognition that the bill was discriminatory. After all, having German, British, and French companies sue the Hungarian government is not something Fidesz needs at the moment.

Today Antal Rogán came out with what seems to be the final word on the subject. The Fidesz parliamentary delegation will support the proposal but with substantial amendments. Even the name of the bill will be changed. From here on it will be known as the “Law on the prohibition of work on Sundays.” The aim is, Rogán said, the “total cessation of work on Sundays.” An ambitious plan indeed, and I could give Rogán a few suggestions. No football on Sunday; after all those players are paid for their work. And then there are the priests and ministers who are also paid for Sunday work. And one could continue with policemen, firemen, doctors, nurses, or agricultural workers during planting and harvest season. What about restaurants or theaters, movies, concert halls? This proposed Hungarian blue law reminds me of Ottawa in the 1950s and 1960s when everything but everything was closed. It was a jolly place indeed. When I read such nonsense I always suspect that these people don’t think before they speak.

I understand that some of the influential higher-ups in Fidesz argued against the store closures because they knew that the move would be unpopular and, they argued, the government does not need another huge demonstration. According to an article that appeared on November 19, the Christian Democratic proposal was not popular among Fidesz leaders, including Viktor Orbán. But now, it seems, he changed his mind. According to vs.huOrbán turned against those, among them Lajos Kósa, who today argued for dropping the idea because of the current public mood. Orbán apparently countered that unpopular pieces of legislation should be introduced right at the beginning of the new administration. But, of course, this does not answer the question: why is the Sunday closing of stores such an important issue? Why should the government gamble on its already waning popularity? It is hard to fathom what’s going on in Orbán’s head. Has he lost his earlier keen political sense or is the Christian Democratic delegation perhaps blackmailing him, threatening him with a withdrawal of their support?

CBA Pecs

We know few details of the Fidesz amendments to the KDNP bill. One change that has been mentioned is that only very small family-owned stores can be open and only members of the family can work in them on Sundays. The size of stores that will be exempted from the blue law will be smaller than the originally proposed 400m² because it will include not only the shopping space but the store’s storage area as well. With the Fidesz amendments it seems that most CBA franchises will suffer along with the foreign-owned supermarkets. I don’t know the average area of these stores (or the average size of the families owning the franchises), but the Pécs CBA I found pictured online surely couldn’t do business on Sunday if this proposal becomes law.

Switching topics: Vladimir Putin announced a few hours ago that Gazprom has cancelled the construction of the South Stream pipeline. Not a good day for Viktor Orbán. What will happen to the storage facilities in Hungary? What about Paks? It looks as if Viktor Orbán might fall between two stools. It was risky gamble from day one, and it is getting riskier by the day.