Orban Scraps Sunday Shopping Ban to Avoid Hungary Ballot Defeat

  • Hungarian government wants lawmakers to rescind law this week
  • Orban moved to ``cut his losses:'' political analyst

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban moved to scrap an unpopular Sunday shopping ban to avoid near-certain defeat at the ballot box after an opposition party received the go-ahead to organize a referendum.

The cabinet will ask lawmakers to rescind a law that bars all but a few shops from opening on Sundays, Antal Rogan, Orban’s chief of staff, told reporters on Monday in Budapest. The cabinet failed to convince voters of the necessity to maintain the Sunday shopping ban and wanted to avert a referendum, he said.

Plebiscites have played important roles in Hungarian politics over the last decade. In a 2008 referendum, organized by Orban, voters rejected a symbolic 300 forint ($1) co-payment for doctor’s visits, triggering the fall of the prime minister and opening the way for Orban’s Fidesz party to win a landslide two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2010. More than two-thirds oppose the Sunday shopping ban, an Ipsos poll published on Dec. 4 showed. The cabinet wants stores to open starting this Sunday, Rogan said.

Cut Losses

“Orban cut his losses,” Andras Szakacs, a Budapest-based political analyst at Meltanyossag Politikaelemzo Kozpont, said by phone. “He wanted to avert being drawn into a campaign which would’ve provided an opportunity for the opposition to shine in the media and that’s why he was suddenly in such a rush to put this issue behind him.”

The Sunday shopping ban came to the fore last week after Hungary’s supreme court approved an opposition party request to hold a referendum on the ban, which took effect in March of last year.

While Orban’s Fidesz party holds a comfortable lead ahead of the next parliamentary elections in 2018, according to all opinion polls, the referendum would have offered a chance to a marginalized opposition to come together and boost their popularity by taking on one of the government’s most unpopular measures.

Democracy Criticism

Orban has faced down criticism from the European Union’s executive for using his parliamentary supermajority to change the constitution over opposition protests and for appointing allies to head institutions, including the courts. After re-election in 2014 in a ballot international observers said was free but not fair, Orban said he was building an “illiberal state” modeled on countries including Russia and Turkey.

The Socialist Party had sought to combine the Sunday closure referendum with one seeking to bar the government from selling state-owned land and another aiming to cap salaries at state-owned companies at a gross monthly wage of 2 million forint ($7,300).

After today’s move, the government’s referendum initiative against European migrant quotas, a position which helped the ruling party surge in polls over the past year, is likely to dominate the political agenda, according to Szakacs.

“The shopping ban referendum would’ve diverted attention from the migrant issue, which is where the government feels most comfortable,” Szakacs said.

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