Hungarian schools closed again on April 20 as teachers held a one-day strike against the government’s centralised education system. Teachers and parents have been protesting the issue over recent months, attracting anti-government demonstrators, which has clearly rattled Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Hungary's populist government has often proved skittish when protests have erupted on the streets. It was recently so spooked by the prospect of an opposition referendum over the Sunday shopping ban that it almost immediately overturned the flagship policy in a move that provoked rare splits in the upper echelons of power surrounding Orban.
However, vague promises of compromise and a few rearranged chairs have not diffused the anger amongst teachers. The ruling Fidesz party is now attempting to regain control of the media agenda by shining the spotlight back onto the migrant crisis. Its hardline stance on immigration revived support through 2015 after protests against a proposed internet tax and a percieved lean towards Moscow had hit it hard the previous year.
Classes across the country were affected, teachers' union Pedagogusok Szakszervezete said, as around 25,000 teaching staff at 1,185 schools joined the strike. Alongside the Sunday shopping ban, the issue is regularly cited as a rare cause of anger against Fidesz, which won a second constitutional majority in elections in early 2014.
Teacher’s demonstrations in recent months, which included a large-scale protest on the March 15 national holiday and one- and two-hour strikes at schools, have taken their toll on the government’s popularity, although thanks to the fractured parliamentary opposition the party remains far and away the most popular in the country. Support for Fidesz fell seven percentage points to 46% among decided voters, according to local pollster Median's survey published in March. The same poll also found that 76% of the population backs the teachers’ demands.
On April 20, Pedagogusok Szakszervezete asked Hungarians to halt work for five minutes in solidarity with the teachers’ demands. Local reports show that restaurants, shops and post offices stopped their service at noon. Meanwhile, the opposition MSZP gathered in front of the parliament as a sign of solidarity.
Protestors demand reduced hours for teachers, higher pay for administrators, the reduction of nationally prescribed compulsory teaching materials and the scrapping of the widely criticised state authority overseeing public education named KLIK (Klebelsberg Intezmenyfenntarto Kozpont). “The strike is meant to put pressure on the government to return autonomy to schools,” Istvanne Gallo, president of the Teachers’ Union told Bloomberg.
Recent demonstrations have clearly rattled the government, which has suggested it could offer education reform. The state secretary for education was already replaced in February, and the government promised to scrap KLIK. However, the government has insisted it will maintain central state supervision over schools.
At the same time, protestors fear that even after the reform, education will continue to be dominated by pro-government groups. One of the leaders of the Tanitanek (I want to teach) Movement said that it wants the government to engage in direct negotiations with protesting teachers, according to index.hu.
That suggests a point of leverage for Fidesz suggest some. "The representation of protesting teachers is divided, which makes a comprehensive reform very difficult," political analyst Zoltan Cegledi told bne Intellinews, adding that this might result in protests losing momentum as the school year ends.
At the same time, the protests continue to show that education has become one of the most important issues in Hungary, and is a palpable threat to the government.
"It seems that there is a growing consensus that besides healthcare, education is Fidesz’s most serious government failure,” Cegledi notes. “One thing is sure; such articulated failures damage Fidesz’s popularity, this is why they are trying to ‘clean all this up’ with the anti-refugee campaign, as quickly as possible” he added.
It was little coincidence that just a day ahead of the latest strike, State Secretary Bence Retvari sought to revive fears in Hungary over the migrant crisis by offering a picture of the direct impact in the country. It's an angle that Fidesz pushed heavily in early 2015. However, since the issue hit the headlines across Europe in the summer, Budapest has concentrated on the international picture, with Orban playing up his image as a protector of the country against an authoritarian EU. Several analysts remarked to bne Intellinews earlier this year that the PM clearly feels he now strides a larger stage than just Hungary.
Retvari, however, concentrated on the more direct 'threats' to Hungarians. He claimed that EU’s latest migrant quota system would hit Hungary with a bill of around €650mn as refugees arrived, and that it would "endanger social security and Hungarian jobs".
Orban, meanwhile, has also been doing his bit to nudge the headlines in the right direction. The PM is touring Europe with his 10-point plan entitled 'Schengen 2.0', which he says is the real solution to the migrant crisis, as it aims to protect the EU’s external borders. Orban has reiterated in recent days that he considers the European Commission’s proposals "wrong-headed", and that Hungary still plans to hold a referendum on the issue.