Protests Intensify Against Orban as Hungarian Schools Strike

  • Prime minister faces first full-day school stoppage since 2010
  • Teachers demand reversal of centralization in school system

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban faced the first full-day strike against his government’s policies since returning to power in 2010, with thousands of people skipping work to demand the reversal of centralization in the education system.

Almost 25,000 teachers, or about a fifth of the workforce, participated in the strike at 1,185 schools nationwide, Index news website reported, citing Teachers’ Union leader Istvanne Gallo. At the two-story, red-brick Herman Otto primary in central Budapest, about 40 percent of teachers didn’t show up, principal Edit Chovanecz said.

“No student from the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades showed up but even from the lower grades there are a lot students who didn’t come to school, which shows that parents are also in solidarity with teachers,” Chovanecz said in an interview in her office Wednesday.

Teachers have held several nationwide demonstrations this year, with the biggest attracting tens of thousands of people last month, as well as one- and two-hour work stoppages. The protests have taken a toll on Orban’s Fidesz party, whose support fell seven percentage points to 46 percent of decided voters in February, according to the latest poll by Median. The survey, which still put Fidesz far ahead of rivals, also found that 76 percent of the population backs teachers’ demands.

Centralization Push

Orban has faced down criticism from the European Union over his centralization push and accusations that he’s undermining democracy after amassing more power than any of his predecessors since the end of communism more than a quarter century ago. 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’s up for re-election in 2018.

Education protests spread after disgruntled staff at a high school published an open letter to the government in November, complaining of excessive centralization, overworked and underpaid workers and overburdened students. The government has argued that it needed to overhaul education to eliminate disparities among schools, which were previously mostly funded by municipalities.

Teachers’ Demands

Teachers are calling for the breakup of the central authority the government created to oversee public schools and the return of their autonomy, Gallo, president of the Teachers’ Union that counts 23,000 members, said in a phone interview on Tuesday. They’re also asking for reduced hours for teachers and higher pay for administrators, she said.

“The strike is meant to put pressure on the government to return autonomy to schools,” Gallo said. “Centralization has failed.”

The government has already made some concessions, including by vowing to scrap Klik, the state authority it established to oversee public education, this summer. It’s also said the number of school hours will be cut for students.

Some of the positive changes are already being felt, Chovanecz said. Teachers spend less time doing evaluations and they can now choose from a wider choice of textbooks, though the offerings are fewer than prior to the 2012 education overhaul, she said. Blackboards and furniture the school was promised never arrived. And non-teaching staff members still earn a net 85,000 forint ($312) a month, making their salary increase a priority, Chovanecz said.

“We’ve been promised a lot of things in the past that never materialized,” Chovanecz said. “So we’re now only going to relent once we see the changes with our own eyes.”

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