Hungary moving to lift disputed Sunday shopping ban

BUDAPEST, Hungary – Hungary’s government said Monday it had asked parliament to repeal a year-old, very unpopular law banning most retail stores from opening on Sundays.

The move would avoid a referendum on the issue initiated by the opposition Socialist Party, which could have been held later this year.

The government also wants to avoid distracting voters from its own plans for a referendum seeking support for Hungary’s rejection of the European Union’s scheme of resettlement quotas for refugees, said Antal Rogan, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Cabinet minister.

“At the time, the government supported the proposal because it agrees that no one should be forced to work Sundays,” Rogan said, adding that the ban could be repealed Tuesday, letting stores open as soon as next Sunday.

Rogan said the ban had achieved some of the government’s economic objectives, including shifting some sales from multinational chains to smaller stores, but acknowledged its unpopularity with voters.

Just last Friday, Orban had said that government was committed to “finding ways to extend the principle of free Sundays to other sectors,” making the timing of Monday’s announcement surprising.

“The decision itself was not unexpected,” said Attila Tibor Nagy of the Center for Fair Political Analysis. “The government could not allow the opposition to win the referendum.”

By scrapping the unpopular ban, the government could also show that it “listens to the people,” Nagy said, adding that he did not expect the government’s backtracking to greatly benefit the opposition.

“The traditions and roots of popular resistance are not that strong in Hungary,” Nagy said. “Fewer people protest on the street, fewer sign petitions” than in the West.

He attributed the weakness of the protest efforts also to the still-large voter base of Orban’s ruling Fidesz party and its effective communications.