(Bloomberg) -- Hungarians staged nationwide protests and threatened the first general strike since the end of communism to pressure Prime Minister Viktor Orban into repealing a controversial new law on overtime.
Thousands gathered on Saturday in Budapest and blocked traffic in more than a dozen cities across the country, reflecting dissent that’s spreading beyond the capital. Labor unions and opposition groups are protesting what critics have dubbed the “slave law,” which allows companies to ask employees to work the equivalent of six days a week.
The legislation triggered more than a month of protests that have snowballed into a call to end Orban’s illiberal rule. The protests have started to chip away at the ruling party’s backing and more than four out of five Hungarians are opposed to the overtime law, according to one survey, but it is still unclear whether they will lead to policy change by the government.
Saturday’s main event in central Budapest attracted fewer people than previous demonstrations, but organizers have been focusing on extending their reach beyond the capital to parts of the country where the ruling Fidesz party is more popular.
Even so, the chances for a political change are slim given that Orban’s Fidesz has about as much support as a handful of opposition groups combined.
"I have attended several demonstrations as I am fed up with the government," Janos Kezdi, a software engineer attending the protest in Budapest, told Bloomberg. "Still, I cannot imagine that they will repeal the law on overtime or backtrack on policies."
The drama with unions risks thwarting Orban’s efforts to create a majority for nationalists in May’s European Union Parliamentary elections. Already, the impasse has galvanized a hitherto feeble opposition, whose divisions have been key for Orban’s political success since his return to power in 2010.
Opposition politicians have used the labor dispute as a springboard for other issues, including to call for an end to pro-Orban propaganda on public media and to demand action against corruption. Some have proposed joining forces for municipal elections later this year.
"This is no longer only about the overtime rule," said Peter, a lawyer attending the protest in Budapest, who declined to give his full name out of fear of repercussions. "Hungary has turned into a dictatorship and we are here to force a return to the rule of law, independent media and courts."
The overtime legislation and the ensuing protests came on the heels of Orban’s third consecutive landslide election victory last year and as the economy enjoyed the fastest economic growth in more than a decade.
Despite rapid wage growth and record low unemployment, the groundswell of opposition is highlighting structural economic problems stemming from a labor shortage caused by an aging population. That’s been exacerbated by emigration and Orban’s signature anti-immigration policies.
Unions are currently in the process of consulting members about whether they’d participate in a general strike, something that hasn’t been held since the end of communism 30 years ago.
In a separate protest on Friday, employees at Volkswagen AG’s Audi car factory in Hungary held a two-hour work stoppage to seek an 18 percent wage increase, on top of other demands including one free weekend a month. Unions at the factory have rejected a proposal for a 10 percent salary hike both this year and the next, arguing that colleagues in other factories around Europe already earn significantly more.
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