- Support for Orban's party has dropped since protests started
- Teachers' demands backed by majority of Hungarians, poll shows
Hungary will abolish the state authority overseeing public education, a government official said, signaling a rare political defeat for Prime Minister Viktor Orban after months of protests by teachers.
The authority, known as Klik, will “cease to exist this summer,” Bence Retvari, a state secretary at the Human Resources Ministry, which deals with education, said in an interview on ATV television on Tuesday. “There’s criticism that we accept and areas that we have to improve.”
The move would represent the government’s biggest concession yet to appease teachers, who last took the streets on March 15 and threatened to strike if the cabinet didn’t agree to meaningful dialogue to reduce centralization. Orban’s Fidesz, which leads all other political parties in opinion polls, fell seven percentage points to 46 percent among decided voters in February, according to a Median survey published this month. It also found that 76 percent of the population backs the teachers’ demands.
“The government had to deliver an immediate gesture because it’s under so much pressure at the moment from the public and from teachers,” Peter Kreko, a political analyst at Political Capital in Budapest, said by phone.
More than 35,000 people, including parents and educators, have signed an online petition in support of the Herman Otto high school in the northeastern city of Miskolc. The school first published an open letter to the government in November in which it complained of excessive centralization, overworked and underpaid teachers and overburdened students.
The government responded to swelling street protests by replacing the state secretary for education and calling for dialogue with teachers. Still, Orban had until now rejected closing Klik, the state institution running schools, prompting most demonstrating groups to stay away from talks.
Klik was touted by the Hungarian government as central Europe’s biggest employer after it took control over schools that in many cases had been run by municipalities. It became the focal point of teachers’ anger after lapses in management, in some cases, left classrooms short of chalk and without heating.
The government will build a “new system” to administer schools, which will be discussed in the summer before it takes over in September with the new school year, Retvari told ATV. The system will be less centralized and will reduce the number of hours for students, he said, according to a summary of the interview on the station’s website.
While it’s a loss of prestige for Orban to have to back down, it’d be “naive” to expect a full about-face, according to Kreko, the political analyst, because centralization has been the hallmark of Orban’s government across all areas from education to health-care.
“One can’t expect meaningful decentralization because the aim of the government has been to centralize and gain tighter control over what students are taught, including by reducing teachers’ autonomy over which textbooks they can choose to teach from,” Kreko said.
Orban has faced down criticism from the European Union over his centralization push and accusations that he’s undermining democracy after he amassed more power than any of his predecessors since the end of communism. Since taking office in 2010, Fidesz has used its parliamentary majority to change the constitution and appoint allies to head institutions, including the Constitutional Court. Orban was re-elected in 2014 in an election international observers said was free but not fair. He is up for re-election in 2018.