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Democracy Digest: Hungary Promotes ‘Ninja Government’

In other news, Czechia faces industrial action as anger over austerity mounts; is it Hlas-ta la vista for Slovak coalition party?; and trucker protests expand in Poland and beyond.

Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party this week launched a new campaign on TikTok featuring government members as ninja warriors. With meticulously designed AI drawing, government members are dressed in hoods and capes, like combat heroes carrying ancient weapons, with determined gazes off into the distance, Far East sunsets in the background. The ninja theme first appeared in an Orban speech at the party congress last weekend, baffling most analysts. “Our government is a ninja government. We won’t be the ones left on the ground, but the enemy. We will return to base unscathed,” he declared. With the release of the anime-like TikTok video, it is clear the ninja comparison is part of a communication campaign aimed at young voters who in the main seem rather disillusioned with the government. This is not the government’s first attempt at being ‘down with the kids’: a few weeks ago, Orban blasted social media with a TikTok video depicting his government as Star War heroes, with George Soros in the role of the evil Emperor Palpatine and Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto as Han Solo and former justice and EU minister Judit Varga as Princess Leia (though not in the iconic metal bikini). The videos are in stark contrast with the government’s ‘peace-loving mantra’ over the war in Ukraine.

More than two-thirds of Hungarians would support a “dignified death” to limit the suffering of a patient and almost half (47 per cent) would support euthanasia, according to a Median poll published on hvg.hu. Only 21 per cent oppose assisted dying for the terminally ill. Support or opposition to euthanasia does not seem to be influenced by party politics, as more than half of government voters would support it; instead, it largely depends on religious beliefs. Half of those who claim to be religious and attend church regularly oppose euthanasia, while almost nine-tenths of non-believers support some form of it. A public debate on how to end the lives of terminally ill patients with dignity has recently erupted in Hungary, fuelled by the case of constitutional lawyer Daniel Karsai. Karsai, who suffers from ASL, a fatal neurologic disease, has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights for the right to choose how to end his life. In Hungary, assisted death is a crime. His trial is due to begin on November 28 in Strasbourg. Members of the government have commented on the case with a shocking lack of empathy, “wishing him well” and “hoping for a miracle”, knowing full well there is no cure for ASL and that his death will come in a gruesome manner by suffocation.

Union members protest in front of South Korean embassy in Prague, Czech Republic, 31 January 2023, as part of an indefinite strike by employees of the Nexen Tire Europe which began that morning with the aim of securing a collective agreement over an increase in wages. EPA-EFE/MARTIN DIVISEK

Czechia faces industrial action; anger over austerity package

Czechia’s austerity-toting government is unsettling what are arguably the region’s strongest health and education systems. Hospitals were this week postponing hundreds of surgeries and outpatient appointments for next month, with over 6,000 doctors set to work to rule from December 1, the Czech Medical Chamber warned. The doctors are withdrawing from overtime in protest over new labour laws doubling the threshold for unpaid overtime to 832 hours per year. Health Minister Vlastimil Valek has also failed to offer pay increases for medical staff that would allow them to keep pace with the national average. Schools are also braced for industrial action, with teachers and other staff set to strike on November 27. Unions demand a rise in the education budget for 2024. The Education Ministry will get 269 billion koruna (10.9 billion euros), an increase of just 4 billion koruna, or 1.5 per cent, despite rampant inflation, and support staff are due for a 2-per-cent rise. Education Minister Mikulas Bek had asked for an extra 5 billion koruna, but PM Petr Fiala appears determined to stick to his pledge to slash the deficit. That leaves the ministry feebly advising principals on how best to cope. Last month, a strike by professors and faculty members at universities across the country called for an urgent increase in the budget for higher education.

Union anger was cemented on Wednesday when President Petr Pavel signed off on Fiala’s austerity measures. The 65 budget cuts and tax increases are designed to reduce the government deficit by 97 billion koruna to 252 billion next year, and to trim it by a further 53 billion in 2025. Having noted the consolidation drive has helped cripple support for the five-party governing coalition and encouraged mass protests (which have been hijacked by extremist and pro-Russian forces), Pavel sought to explain his decision to sign the legislation on social media. He argued that the “unsustainable growth rate of debt” threatens to “leave our children and grandchildren in debt”. At just over 40 per cent of GDP, Czechia’s government debt is actually the eighth lowest in the EU; the average across the bloc is close to 90 per cent. Pavel’s words did little to soothe the sour mood, which has been building since Fiala decided that austerity is the best response to the cost-of-living crisis. The planned rise in VAT on beer, for instance, has stoked fury among the world’s top consumers. The plan has offered the populist opposition a handy stick with which to beat the government. The centrist ANO party of billionaire Andrej Babis said it will challenge the consolidation package at the Constitutional Court. Labour unions, meanwhile, have called for protests and strikes.

President of the Slovak Republic Zuzana Caputova and chairman of the Hlas party Peter Pellegrini at the Presidential Palace in Bratislava on October 3, 2023. TASR PHOTO – Martin Baumann

Hlas-ta la vista; Slovak government to fight hybrid threats

Speculation in Slovakia this week that the ruling Smer party, led by Prime Minister Robert Fico, could swallow up its splinter and now coalition party, Hlas, after the 2024 presidential election. Hlas leader Peter Pellegrini, who now serves as speaker of parliament, is considering running for president. According to the polls, his chances of winning are high. If he won, the relatively new party would have to find a leader that would be at least as strong and charismatic as Pellegrini. Actually, the idea of incorporating Hlas into Smer is not new. In 2020, when Smer renegades led by Pellegrini founded Hlas, observers predicted the two parties would merge after the 2023 parliamentary election. This idea resurfaced after Smer’s party convention that took place on November 17 – the day when Slovakia marks the Velvet Revolution and the fall of Communism in the country. At the convention, Fico said the year of 2024 would be exceptionally demanding for the left and its position in Slovak politics. “You are experienced and skilled enough to know what I am talking about now,” Fico said. Just as Hlas has denied any plans to merge with Smer, so has Smer. However, according to the dailies Pravda and Dennik N, a merger has not been ruled out for the future. Smer merged with several smaller left-wing parties two decades ago.   

In its programme for the next four years, approved in the Slovak parliament earlier this week, the new government pledged to fight hybrid threats to the country. The reality shows a different picture. Juraj Gedra, the prime minister’s chief of staff, recently slammed all the public servants who had been working on the elimination of disinformation at Government Office and several ministries during the previous government, and suggested they were no longer welcome in the administration. Dennik N said about 30 people currently work on rooting out Russian propaganda in Slovakia, paid for by the EU. Some experts have already announced they are quitting, while others have not had their expiring contracts extended. Dennik N reported that these experts will be replaced by other people who will paid by the EU, and those who have not been fired will face obstacles in their work. Some changes are already visible. State institutions, such as the Foreign Ministry and the Slovak police’s successful anti-disinformation Facebook page, have reduced the amount of content flagged as Russian propaganda. The Foreign Ministry appears more focused now on the promotion of the new minister, Juraj Blanar, a Smer MP who holds pro-Russian views.

Slovak truck drivers began blocking traffic at the border crossing with Ukraine in Vyšné Nemecké Tuesday in protest of Ukrainian haulers’ access to the EU market without permits, on 22 November 2023. Photo: dpsu.gov.ua

Trucker protests expand; Pfizer sues Poland

A protest by Polish truckers blocking three border crossings with Ukraine expanded on Thursday when a farmers’ organisations blocked a fourth crossing at Medyka. Polish truckers have blockaded three different border crossings with Ukraine since November 6, in protest at what they claim is unfair competition from Ukrainian truckers since the war started. While the scrapping of entry permits for Ukrainian truckers to the EU was designed to support the Ukrainian economy, Polish transport companies complain that Ukrainian firms and others from the east are setting up Polish entities to take away their business in the country and elsewhere in the EU. Polish farmers have also been protesting against unfair competition from their Ukrainian peers, which led to the Polish government, then in pre-election mode, blocking imports of foodstuffs from Ukraine for a time. On Thursday around noon, farmers’ organisations began blocking a fourth crossing, at Medyka, leaving about 1,400 vehicles queueing on the Ukrainian side and drivers having to wait an estimated 120 hours to cross the border. Negotiations between Ukraine and Poland, together with EU representatives, were supposed to take place on Wednesday, but no breakthrough has so far been announced.

And it’s not just in Poland. On Tuesday, a border crossing between Slovakia and Ukraine was also blocked. While the national Slovak truckers’ union said this was a spontaneous action by individual truckers, they said they share the Polish truckers’ concerns and the union might join the Polish protest in larger form soon. On Wednesday, Hungarian officials notified that they are seeing increasing lines of truckers at their own border with Ukraine, as hauliers are re-routing away from Poland and Slovakia. In the meantime, Ukrainian businesses are reporting that their ability to export goods to the EU has significantly decreased on account of the blockades. According to Spike Brokers, a company which tracks Ukrainian exports, goods crossing from Ukraine into Poland are currently running at about 3,700 tons per day, compared with a peak of 7,500 tons a month ago.

According to the Dziennik Gazeta Prawna daily, the company Pfizer is suing Poland before a Belgian court, asking for 6 billion zloty (about 1.3 billion euros) in damages for refusing to accept and pay for vaccines that the country had ordered but no longer needed. Asked to comment on the lawsuit by TVN24, Polish Health Minister Katarzyna Sojka admitted the lawsuit “seemed to be on”, but said it did not concern Poland alone. She hoped it would still be possible to reach an agreement with the pharmaceutical company. In Poland’s case, the lawsuit concerns 60 million COVID-19 vaccines the country ordered but eventually did not make use of. The trial is set to take place in Brussels, Polish media reported, because the deal on the basis of which the sale of vaccines was arranged was one signed by Pfizer with the European Commission.

Source : Balkan Insight