Hungary’s prime minister stole democracy. Hungarians are rising up.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has effectively dismantled his country’s democracy. His Fidesz party has altered the electoral system to make an opposition victory nearly impossible, dismantled the independence of the courts, and turned roughly 90 percent of the country’s media outlets into mouthpieces for the government’s populist, anti-immigrant rhetoric.

After the April 2018 election, in which Fidesz won less than 50 percent of the popular vote but two-thirds of seats in Parliament, it seemed that there was little optimism that the country could be wrested from his grasp.

But in the past week, something genuinely hopeful happened: Thousands of protesters began taking to the streets of Budapest in sustained anti-government demonstrations. Backed by the major anti-Orbán opposition parties, the protests, which began Wednesday, have featured signs with slogans like “all I want for Xmas is democracy” and chants against state-run media (“the TV is lying!”)

The protests have created some dramatic footage. When opposition member of parliament Akos Hadhazy attempted to enter the offices of state-run television to read a list of demands, private security guards physically dragged him out:

This is a serious threat to Hungarian “soft fascism,” as I’ve termed Orbán’s model of government, but not yet an existential one. The protestors aren’t yet a unified movement with a long-term strategy, nor are there enough of them: The largest demonstration so far attracted an estimated 15,000 people in a nation of around 10 million.

But the protests could continue to grow if Orbán doesn’t do something to deal with the protestors’ grievances. Perhaps most importantly, they show a fundamental weakness in the anti-immigrant right-wing populist model — one that Americans could learn from.

Why the protests are happening — and what to take from them

The immediate spark for the protest was a draconian new labor law rammed through by Orbán’s party on Wednesday. The law would give employers the power to demand 400 hours of overtime from their employees per year, roughly eight hours every week, and to delay paying them for the extra work for as long as three years. The opposition has termed it the “slave law,” and they have a point.

The law is meant to address an actual problem: Because wages are higher in other EU countries and because some young Hungarians don’t want to stay in a country where basic democratic rights are being stripped away, young workers are leaving Hungary. Roughly half of young Hungarians would prefer to work abroad than at home, according to research from the Boston Consulting Group released earlier this year. One UN projection found that, if Hungary persists on its current track, the population will be 15 percent lower in 2050 than it is currently.

The result is an acute labor shortage, a problem that could be addressed by bringing in more immigrants to work. But Hungary has one of the lowest rates of foreign-born residents in the European Union, and Orbán has no interest in changing that. His ideology centers on protecting Hungarians from the alleged threat from mass migration, particularly from Muslim-majority countries; Fidesz supporters I spoke to in a trip to Hungary this summer all praised Orbán for clamping down on migration in the wake of the 2014 refugee crisis.

So unable to halt mass emigration or back off on immigration, Orbán decided to force Hungarians to work more without any immediate reward. The result was a massive uproar, particularly from unions, and the beginning of the Budapest protests on Wednesday.

The immediate goal of the protests was to reverse the “slave law,” but it quickly evolved into a bigger protest movement. University students who oppose the country’s authoritarian drift — including many enrolled at Central European University, an American school founded by George Soros that Orbán recently pressured into leaving the country — linked up with unions and the opposition to create a significant protest movement. They’ve been going for the better part of a week now, with Sunday being the biggest day yet (per the New York Times).

This is a serious problem for Orbán and Fidesz. The goal of their “soft fascist” government is to not overtly use force to put down dissent, but rather quietly neuter the opposition using regulations and corrupt legal practices. Propaganda, not bullets and tear gas, is supposed to be the main tool for keeping the population quiet. When people take to the streets demanding democratic reforms, it’s a lot harder to repress subtly.

Riot police stand outside the Budapest headquarters of Hungarian state television during the December 16 protests.
Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images

The smartest thing to do would be to cave on the overtime law, which would satisfy the unions and isolate the more hardcore pro-democracy students. Something similar happened in 2014, when a proposed tax on internet usage also sparked broader pro-democracy demonstrations. After the protests got big, Orbán simply canceled the tax, and the movement ran out of steam before it could turn into a systemic challenge.

But things might not be so easy this time around. The internet tax was just a way to get money; this is a proposal to fix the labor shortage, a fundamental flaw in Hungarian political economy, and Orbán hopes the law can spur major foreign investment.

“Nobody at this point is seriously thinking he’s even remotely considering backing off anytime soon,” Hungarian journalist Mate Halmos told me in an email.

The conflict over this proposal may not be defused too easily, and could well lead to a sustained clash over the nature of Orbán’s soft fascist regime.

But there’s also a broader lesson in the conflict. Countries with aging populations and not enough young people, as is the case in most North American and European countries, anti-immigration governments can run into serious political problems, whether it’s a labor force shortage, as in Hungary, or the challenge of sustaining social programs for the elderly as their numbers grow and the working-age population shrinks.

Immigration is one way to address these challenges. But right-wing populism depends on turning mass immigration into a threat to the West when it’s actually a boon — a contradiction that is currently imperiling Hungary’s authoritarian populist government, perhaps the most well-entrenched of its kind in the world.

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