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.hu, Orbán 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?
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.