Mass protests over new labour law and the removal of a beloved monument5 min read

With the Hungarian Parliament adopting two sets of legislation, one stipulating that the amount of overtime per person and year will increase from 250 to 400 hours, and  the other that a new administrative court will be established and put under the direct control of the Ministry of Justice, mass protests broke out in Budapest on December 12th.

The law regulating overtime has been named the “slave law” by protesters, although the stated purpose behind its adoption is to attract foreign investors to the country and increase flexibility on the labour market.

Regarding the establishment of a new administrative court, leftist opponents say that this will be the absolute end of an independent justice system in Hungary, as the new court will be overseen directly by the Minister of Justice. It will be tasked with handling lawsuits about government business that are currently covered by the general legal system.

On the first night of the protests, a Belgian-Canadian student, Adrien Beauduin, and four others were “randomly picked from the crowd by the police” and arrested. After two days in detention, they were charged with “felony against a public official committed in a gang,” and may face up to eight years in prison. Government-friendly media have made a point of portraying Beauduin, who is a PhD student in Gender Studies at the Central European University (which was closed on December 1st 2018) as an enemy of the Hungarian state.


On December 17th, fourteen members of parliament began camping out at the headquarters of MTVA, a state-owned television channel, refusing to leave until their list of demands was read live on the air. Those demands included an independent and fair justice system, an independent media, and an end to the “slavery law”. Their demands were ignored, and the MPs removed from the building by security personnel. One MP, László Varjú, ended up in an argument with the MTVA security guards that turned violent, and later had to be treated in hospital.

The demonstrations continued for one week, bringing together a shattered opposition and attracting thousands of participants. The hype seemed to have waned by December 18th, when around 200 people gathered outside of the parliament building as opposition lawmakers vowed to make legal and parliamentary moves to thwart the implementation of the new labour law. Timea Szabo, a lawmaker for a center-left party stated that “We are planning civil disobedience actions, road blocks with the trade unions, and further demonstrations.”

– On December 19th, the UN General Assembly endorsed the Global Compact for Migration in order to increase global cooperation on migration issues. In itself a nonbinding accord, 152 countries voted in favour, Hungary together with four other countries; the United States, Israel, the Czech Republic and Poland opposed the pact (read more about how the Compact has affected Estonian politics in our latest article: 21st Century Identity Crisis: Estonia Conflicted over UN Global Compact on Migration).

– On December 27th, Dagens Nyheter reported that a new law abolishing homelessness (see our October edition of “What’s up Hungary?”) has already resulted in the arrest of around ten people. As a result of this new law, and of designated shelters being overcrowded, some homeless people have reportedly been taking to the woods in order to avoid being arrested by the police.

Martyrs’ Square after the removal the statue of Imre Nagy. Source: Hungarian Free Press

– In the pre-dawn hours of December 28th, the statue of pro-reform communist leader Imre Nagy was silently removed from Martyrs’ Square at the heart of Budapest. Nagy, who was prime minister twice and was deemed a hero of the failed Revolution of 1956, was executed by the pro-Moscow government in 1958. He was buried in an unmarked grave but reburied in 1989, at a ceremony that gathered 200 000 Hungarians at Hero’s Square. At this event, Viktor Orbán, then an anti-communist activist, gave a passionate speech, calling Nagy the symbol of a new and free Hungary.

Martyrs’ Square will not remain empty, as a new monument replicating a statue from the era of Admiral Miklós Horthy, who ruled the country between 1920-1944, will take Nagy’s place. As Horthy helped fuel anti-semitism and collaborated with Adolf Hitler in the 1930’s and 40’s, the replacement of one statue over another has been given a symbolic value indicating the Hungarian government’s view on history. Supporters of the government say that the aim it to change Budapest’s appearance to look like it did before World War Two.

– In his New Year’s speech just after midnight on December 31st, Hungarian President János Áder in a public broadcast wished the citizens of Hungary a happy new year, urging them to say ‘no to frugality, cynicism, short-sighted thinking, and actions that hurt “our fellow citizens in their religion, identity and dignity”. According to the president, Hungarians should say yes to peaceful homes, taking care of each other, recognising their own achievements, fair competition, and helping friends through good intentions. This was reported by Hungary Today.

Main sources: Dagens Nyheter (SWE), Hungarian Free Press (EN), RFE/RL (EN) Sveriges Radio (SWE)

Amanda Sonesson holds a BA in Economic History at Stockholm University and has previously lived, studied and worked in Russia and Kyrgyzstan. Currently she is studying in the CEERES program hosted by University of Glasgow, Scotland, focusing on gender issues, democracy, politics and society in Russia and Central Asia. Additionally she owns a secret collection of Putin memorabilia and loves everything (post) Soviet.