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Hungarian protests intensify as Orban heads to Brussels

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Thousands of Hungarians protested in Budapest on Thursday, resuming demonstrations that started on Wednesday against new legislation governing labor regulations and which would exempt government from independent control by the courts.

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The ruling populist right-wing Fidesz party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban passed both new laws on Wednesday, over opposition protests inside parliament and rioting on the street.

Around 3,000 demonstrators gathered at parliament on Thursday and later blocked traffic on one of the bridges over the Danube, shouting “Dirty Fidesz” and “Orban go to hell.”

“Discontent has brought us here ... one is the issue of the courts, which is the next phase of cementing their power,” said Tamas Szabo, 65, who came with a Hungarian flag. “The other (law) is a slap on the face of working people.”

“I’ve come to show a huge middle finger to the government,” said Adam, a student, who declined to give his full name.

The protesters were mostly upset with labor rules, which allow employers to require up to 400 overtime hours per year.

Rights groups say the new law on administrative courts could lead to political interference in justice matters. The government rejected this assumption.

Orban has eroded democratic checks and balances since taking power in 2010, stacking courts and watchdog institutions with loyalists, turning much of the media into a propaganda machine, and favoring friends in public procurement.

In recent weeks, he chased a prominent U.S. private university out of the country and smoothed the way for a mammoth new pro-government media group, which formed as Orban associates donated vast media holdings to it.

International partners have failed to get him to stop. Orban is in Brussels for an EU summit, for talks on Brexit, the euro zone, migration and Russia, among others.

In September the European Parliament voted to impose sanctions on Hungary for flouting EU rules on democracy, civil rights and corruption. Certain of the support from Poland, Hungary rejected the accusations.

Despite any popular resentment, Orban’s reshuffle of the electoral system and the lack of a unified opposition has allowed him to retain a two-thirds parliament majority with only about a third of the electorate supporting him.

He continues to enjoy that much support, easily beating most of his rivals put together, polls show.

Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Richard Balmforth