BUDAPEST — Gyula Radics is not easily angered. When Prime Minister Viktor Orban rewrote the Constitution to give his party greater power, he stayed on the sidelines. When the party took over state media, he was silent. And when the government forced the internationally renowned Central European University out of Hungary, he did not join the protests.

But after Mr. Orban pushed through legislation compelling employees to work hundreds of hours of overtime without full or immediate compensation, he had enough.

“Orban destroys lives and families,” Mr. Radics said as he prepared to march with thousands of protesters Saturday afternoon. A 39-year-old steelworker with five children, he traveled from Veszprem, an hour outside of Budapest.

“This is all we have left,” he said.

By this, he meant the streets.

Over the past eight years, Mr. Orban has steadily used the instruments of a democratic state to undermine nearly all checks on his power.

After a sweeping victory in April elections, his Fidesz party again controls two-thirds of the votes in Parliament, allowing it to pass any legislation it likes. Before breaking for winter recess, the party moved quickly to pass two contentious measures.

One set up a parallel court system, a move widely condemned as undermining the rule of law. While legal experts warned of the profound consequences of ceding control of the judicial system to a political party, it was another measure — compelling workers to work 400 hours of overtime and allowing compensation to be delayed for three years — that fueled the most outrage.

The legislation, branded the “slave law” by an uncharacteristically united opposition, has spurred the most sustained protests since Mr. Orban entered office in 2010.

Fidesz leaders were initially dismissive of the anger.

Balazs Hidveghi, the party’s director communications, used a familiar tactic as public anger swelled: Blame George Soros, the Hungarian-American philanthropist whom Mr. Orban has cast as the root of all evil.


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“The pro-migration Soros network is behind the aggressive protests in Budapest,” Mr. Hidveghi said in a video statement two days after the measure was passed.In December, the police kept watch over a protest of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s labor policies.

In December, the police kept watch over a protest of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s labor policies.CreditMarko Djurica/Reuters

The party’s attitude has only further enraged those taking to the streets.

As scores of workers from an array of unions — including meatpackers, chemists, teachers and metalworkers — joined families, students and others, the crowd cursed Mr. Orban as it marched down Andrassy Boulevard. The street, lined with the stately mansions that recall the long-ago days of an empire, was a sea of banners and signs on Saturday.

Ferenc Rabi, the president of a union representing nearly 14,000 miners and industrial workers, said that people who might have been too intimidated to march in the past were simply fed up.

“We have nothing else,” he said. “Parliament does not listen to us. Fidesz does what it wants. They control the state.”

While Mr. Orban’s grip on power is secure and his party’s control of the machinery of government complete, he is also well aware that protests can quickly take on a life of their own and prove the undoing of even the most oppressive political systems.

He himself was once a firebrand, championing the cause of democracy when Hungary was under the thumb of the Soviet Union. In 2006, street protests rocked the country and sent a previous government into a tailspin, fueling the rise of Mr. Orban’s party.

At that time, an angry mob stormed the headquarters of the national television station and set the building ablaze. The police used increasingly heavy-handed tactics to crush dissent.

The images of Hungarians being clubbed and beaten by government security forces resonated deeply, and Mr. Orban seized the moment.

“Fidesz stands on the side of democracy, human rights and the people,” he said in 2006. Those who violated human rights, he added, must be held to account — “be they officers or police officials.”

In the last weeks of 2018, when thousands of protesters turned out to oppose Mr. Orban’s increasingly dictatorial style, his own government watched warily.

Through its control of both the state news media and most private news outlets, it censored coverage of the movement, even as it spread from the capital, Budapest, to the countryside, where protests are rare.Thousands turned out to protest on Saturday. The diverse crowd included workers from an array of unions, joined by families, students and others.

Thousands turned out to protest on Saturday. The diverse crowd included workers from an array of unions, joined by families, students and others.CreditBernadett Szabo/Reuters

In Budapest, the authorities allowed marchers to make their way to the national television headquarters and took a mostly hands-off approach. Opposition lawmakers were assaulted by private security guards and forcefully removed from the headquarters of Hungary’s state-run broadcaster after attempting to read a list of demands on air.

For the most part, the police presence, while large, has been restrained.

In advance of this weekend’s protests, the Budapest police chief ordered a heightened state of alert, allowing officers to stop anyone, without suspicion, to check identification and search personal belongings.

Still, thousands braved wind, snow and freezing temperatures on Saturday to march from Heroes Square in central Budapest to the majestic Parliament building on the banks of the Danube. It was a diverse crowd, a mix of young and old, led by people frightened that their country was sliding into dictatorship.

Laszlo Kordas, the head of the Hungarian Trade Union Confederation, which has 150,000 members, said that although the political class and business elite had long been able to steer labor policies in their own direction, previous governments had never attempted something so brazen.

“This is different now,” Mr. Kordas said. “We are preparing for a strike.”

Since 2010, Mr. Kordas said, the Orban government has tried to appeal to foreign investors by intentionally keeping wages low and gutting health and safety oversight.

“Today, people are going out into the street, despite knowing they are under surveillance,” Mr. Kordas said. “Workers told us they wouldn’t go out to the protests because they were afraid their family members working in the public sector would lose their jobs. Now, people are less and less concerned with that.”

The discontent comes as Hungary faces a labor problem. In order to sustain its economic growth, it needs workers. Labor shortages are being felt by both small and medium businesses, and by large industries like the German automakers that rely on Hungarian labor.

Other countries can encourage immigration to meet labor shortfalls, but Mr. Orban’s popular appeal rests largely on his demonization of immigrants. At the same time, about one million people — many young and skilled workers — have left the country since 2006, according to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Economists and opposition leaders say the new law will do little to address the systemic issues at the heart of the labor shortage.

Laszlo Reszegi, an Hungarian economist, said the main beneficiaries are companies that take advantage of low labor costs, use unskilled workers and have big seasonal production fluctuations.

But few business leaders will voice support for the measure, he said.

“You won’t find any business owners who would admit to liking this law,” he said. “It’s too sensitive.”

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appears in print on Jan. 6, 2019

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