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.

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65 comments

  1. @Istvan

    There are now lots of Republicans in DC.

    For Orban it is enough if there are some crazy tea Party Republicans who will praise him from time to time just because he too hates abortion and thinks traditional family values are very important.

    But more importantly Orban just wants to be left alone, he doesn’t need anything from the US. As long as the US allows Orban to conduct his private energy deals and Paks 2, he couldn’t care less.

  2. A test problem in mathematics at the Technical University (BME) asked students to help the Hungarian IRS (NAV) to find VAT fraud by using [elementary] graph theory.

    Undersecretary Palkovics talked to the president of the university and to the dean of the Computer Science School about this, and asked them not to permit similar test problems in the future.

    I think this is an open admission that the Orban government does not want to discover the fraud chains, even with the help of the students. 🙂

    http://444.hu/2014/12/02/az-allamtitkar-ur-megkerte-a-dekant-hogy-ha-lehet-tobbet-ne-legyenek-aktualpolitikai-peldak-a-zh-kban/

  3. @tappanch

    “Undersecretary Palkovics talked to the president of the university and to the dean of the Computer Science School about this, and asked them not to permit similar test problems in the future.”

    That is chilling news. A government official dictating how problem sets should be written is what you’d expect from a totalitarian regime. Hungary on the slippery slope – so sad.

  4. Once dictators establish themselves (supreme power and no challenge) they have to do something to satisfy their need for power/achievement.

    If they happen to have a big, strong country, they can invade and threaten other counties, start wars, etc. If they have lots of valuable resources, they can enjoy themselves switching their gas/oil/whatever on and off and charging whatever they feel like for it.

    But if they find themselves in charge of a small country, with no resources, no money, no political relevance – what do they do then?

    North Korea-lite?

  5. Gabor
    December 2, 2014 at 10:29 am
    So new jobs are not needed because the engineers and construction workers (have you ever worked on a large scale construction project in any capacity? did you see any ppl there under minimum wage?) will not be paid enough. A country only needs jobs that pay at least how much? 40k? 100k? dollars per year? Where do you draw the line under which a job is not needed in a community in your opinion?

    Oh Gabor… Yes, I did see people working on construction projects in Hungary below minimum wage. Well, they were not officially working on the project just yet (or ever). They were the ones who tidied up before the construction took place. I am not worried about the engineers, and either about he companies that will get the projects. I am worried about how much money from the Hungarian taxpayers will go to the pipe dreams (literally). Who do you think pays for those engineers, and workers? WHo will pay the interests?
    When Lazar’s ten year old son already has a 60,000,000 Ft house and a 20,000,000 Ft vinery, when in fact many Hungarians do not even make 20,000,000 in the their lifetime let alone 60,000,000, I am worried about who pays for all of these. You are obviously not worried, and I am sure you have your solid reasons. There was anything but transparency about the contracts between Russia and Hungary. If it is so beneficial for all, why do you think that is?

    http://index.hu/belfold/2014/12/02/lazar_csaladi_osszefogassal_vett_budai_luxuslakast_fianak/

  6. Some1, not only the workers get screwed!

    From relatives we heard about the building of the Mercedes car factory in Kecskemét – in the net of contractors and subcontractors the companies that did the real work had to wait up to six months for their money!

    But of course they had to pay their workers and their materials immediately …

    And re the “blue law”:

    I can just imagine a conversation between a German company owner and his manager (abbreviated version):

    Owner says:
    We should expand our business. Yesterday Mr Orbán spoke to us in Baden-Baden, that he really welcomes German investments.

    Manager’s answer: But they just passed an anti-German law in parliament – a tax that takes away 50% of a company’s profits …
    And there’s a new law in the making that will forbid foreign owned companies to open on Sundays …

    Ok, says the owner: What about other countries like Poland, Slovenia, …?

  7. Gabor,

    You wrote: “And you never say anything about transit fees. The smallest calculation I have read was 100 billion forints per year”

    Wouldn’t the transit fees from South Stream just be replacing the transit fees from the current gas pipelines that run through Ukraine? It’s not as if anyone expected South Stream to increase the amount of gas coming from Russia by any significant amount.

    You also wrote: “So new jobs are not needed because the engineers and construction workers (have you ever worked on a large scale construction project in any capacity? did you see any ppl there under minimum wage?) will not be paid enough.”

    I think the point was that the few jobs that would have been added would not have made a significant difference to the Hungarian economy. If the government were really interested in attracting foreign investment, rather than supporting a stronger monopoly for Russian gas in Europe, then they would stop attacking those foreign companies that want to invest in Hungary, such as television broadcasters, banks and hypermarkets. How many jobs will be lost if the Sunday closure laws pass? Suddenly morals and workers’ wellbeing are more important to the government than jobs, but supporting the predatory autocracy of Russia in subverting Europe is acceptable because of a few temporary jobs?

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