“The opposition took advantage of the governing parties’ gesture,” complained several members of the Hungarian parliament outraged. “If the opposition is not going to pull its punches, neither are we,” threatened one of them. This was no defeat at all, at least the governing parties did not experience it as such, stated another.
“We provided a gesture, but they used it for technical obstructions,” said János Lázár, leader of the governing Fidesz party’s parliamentary caucus at a news conference, adding that what the opposition did amounted to an abuse of the governing party’s good will. But what is the big fuss about? What did the opposition do? Why are the government MPs upset in Hungary? Because their opposition filibustered a particularly unpopular bill: the government’s reform of the country’s labor code.
Hungary’s Draft Labor Code
The government’s draft labor code has already inspired an independent trade union movement, but even trade unions otherwise supportive of the government protested against it. Among other things, it would result in cutbacks in vacation time and overtime pay, it would roll back worker’s rights and curtail the collective bargaining powers of unions. It would permit unilateral modifications to labor contracts by employers, strip away employee protections previously provided by the state, set up regional minimum wages in the most critical geographic areas of the country, and the list goes on and on.
As the opposition describes it, is is a “slave code” rather than a “labor code.” Not only did opposition representatives demand the withdrawal of the entire proposal, the European Commission will likely to examine the legislation, once accepted, because of concerns that it does not provide the required labor protections. A good indicator of the outcome of this review is that, in a memorandum dated Nov. 17, 2011, the International Labor Organization pointed out 20 aspects of the draft code that violates international norms.
The Day Of The Filibuster
Given the interest surrounding the bill, one might say that scheduling its debate with a 2:45 a.m. begin time may not have been the most prudent choice on the government’s part.
But the day was already filled with other important business. Earlier during the day (on Monday, November 28) the parliament passed into law a ban on building shopping malls for the period of 2012-2014, a budgetary provision which makes more money available for the functioning of the parliamentary caucuses during 2012, the scraping of early retirement benefits, the unification of two military secret services into one, a new law regulating civil guard organizations, a law on the self-governance of the courts, a package of newly introduced taxes to fund the National Cultural Fund, and a new law related to the restructuring the supervision of the judiciary by the Supreme Court.
Then, shortly before midnight, the parliament undertook deliberations of a bill related to a bill on a national electricity delivery network.
At a quarter to 3 in the morning, however, when the discussion of the labor code finally got under way, about 20 Socialist, 3 Jobbik [far-right] and 1 LMP [liberal/green] members of the parliament were still wide awake for a long awaited opportunity to offer their critical perspective on the government’s draft labor code.
The debate got especially interesting when the opposition realized that most all of their colleagues from the government side had already gone home to sleep, well before the debate could even begin. Only seven MPs from the governing coalition stood guard (the government’s parliamentary caucus has 263 members in total).
As such, the opposition could easily defeat the procedural measure which would have combined discussion of the 738 amendments proposed to the bill into one general debate. It was for the first time since their election in 2010 that the governing MPs did not have enough votes to change house rules to shorten the debate. When they do carry the vote, they vote in the beginning of the deliberations to combine the discussion, undercutting thereby both a section-by-section discussion of each bill, and the opposition’s chance to convince the government majority about the merits of their proposed amendments. With a two-third majority, not once did the governing party coalition failed to push its legislative will through the parliament regardless of what the opposition proposed.
But early Tuesday morning, the opposition MPs found themselves so extraordinarily inspired to discuss the draft labor code that they went on to talk for four and a half hours about only three sections of the labor code – about sections which describe the government’s proposed goals for the labor code.
A Conflict Of Agendas
By 8 a.m. in the morning government MPs started to arrive on the floor for the scheduled presentation, by Minister of National Economy György Matolcsy, of the 2012 budget. They appeared truly disappointed to be subjected to the ongoing discussion of the labor code instead.
Nobody remembers a similar incident in the history of the Hungarian parliament, where a previous day’s agenda had yet to be ended – but only because the agenda of another day was already supposed to be under way.
And though the deliberations of the labor code were sometimes suppressed by the yelling and the shouting of the government MPs, it took the government until 11:30 a.m. to end the filibuster. By this time, however, three and a half precious hours had already been wasted from the time allotted for the deliberations pertaining to the country’s 2012 budget.
When, finally, a proposal was put to the MPs present about closing the entire debate (this required several intermediary procedural steps, as technically the debate was to proceed in close to 100 units, and what was required is the summary closing of the entire debate) the opposition demanded to hear who requested this vote and based on what section of the house rules.
The presiding officer of the meeting, István Jakab appeared to be at a loss for an explanation. Whispers of “you don’t have to” and “we will not read the list of names” were heard from the notaries next to him in his microphone. Jakab then announced that he received “a proposal” for closing the deliberations, and without further information the Parliament moved on to the 2012 budget.
A Gesture By The Government
That the reform of the labor code was afforded untimed deliberations was indeed an unusual “allowance” from the majority Fidesz party’s caucus leader. “We admitted that we did not put together the weekly agenda of the House well, this is why we tried extending this gesture,” János Lázár said about the affair to reporters later on Tuesday. The opposition wanted to conduct a dignified debate of the bill, and precisely that was prevented by their obstruction. “In an unprecedented manner,” the opposition said no to its own request, which made it clear that they think a political scandal more important than employee’s rights.
It is indeed an exception of the rule that the governing Fidesz party allowed for a parliamentary debate without time-limits. The usual procedure is to hear timed presentations from one speaker representing each of the party caucuses (and from the first independent MP who registers his or her intention to debate the proposal).
The structure of the debate in the Hungarian parliament is set by the parliament’s House Rules Committee. Like all committees in the parliament, this committee too operates with a Fidesz majority. They are unbound by Hungarian law and can impose any time limit they see fit for the parliament’s agenda – the only exception is the budget, which must be debated for at least 30 hours before it comes up for a vote.
Hungary’s Tight Legislative Calendar
The Hungarian parliament must proceed on a strict schedule to complete its promised rewrite of the fundamentals laws of the Republic of Hungary by the end of this year’s legislative season. Among the laws left to be passed during the next five weeks before the end of the year are the government’s reworking of the municipal government system, of the judiciary, the electoral system, of public education, the law regarding minorities living in Hungary, and the law on military duties – and of course the labor code as well as the 2012 budget.
Many of the laws on the above list are what the Hungarian constitution calls “cornerstone laws”: laws which require a two-third majority for passing. Originally marked as such so that there would be consensus behind their amendment, the governing party coalition can now rewrite these laws for the first time since the country’s democratic transition. By the same token, once enacted by the governing party’s two-third majority, these new laws are going to remain unaltered until either a society-wide consensus is created for changing them, or another party or party coalition is swept into power by the same margin of victory.
Among the laws requiring a two-third majority that have already been changed by the acting Hungarian government are the Constitution, the country’s media law and the law regulating religious practice.
The Filibustering Cannot Go Unpunished
Last week, when concerns that the debate of the draft labor code might reach into the early hours of the morning were raised in the House Rules Committee, the minister responsible for labor relations, Bence Rétvári, said that “Monday night is a very good place for [the labor bill’s] deliberation.”
It is unclear whether the opposition merely seized an opportunity on Tuesday morning, or whether they planned to stage a protest against hiding this discussion from the public (they insist on the latter). Nevertheless, their explanation of what happened is clear and simple: it is a right and an obligation of the opposition to undertake a detailed discussion of the bills submitted by the government.
“We really did not count on them staying here all night long,” said an anonymous government MP to journalists about the unprecedented chaos that ensued as a result, for the few hours while the governing party was at a loss as to how to reign in its opposition.
“They abused the unlimited time they were allowed,” stated another. “We are going to draw the consequences: there will be no similar allowances next time,” yet another promised.
Because, in Hungary, not even filibustering can go unpunished.