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20th Aug 2022

Critics warn of Orban 'optical illusion' on ending special powers

  • PM Viktor Orban shows off Budapest to EU Council president Charles Michel before the pandemic (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Hungarian lawmakers on Tuesday (16 June) voted to call on prime minister Viktor Orban's government to end the controversial special powers they had granted him to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

The parliament, dominated by a two-thirds majority of Orban's party plus its allies, voted by 192 to zero to request the government to lift the "state of danger" and related extra powers.

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The government is expected to formally end the "state of danger" later in the week.

Hungarian government officials have chided critics over the original emergency decree adopted in March, claiming that Hungary faced a "coordinated political campaign and hysteria" and demanded an apology.

However, the parliament also passed, by 135 votes to 54, an almost 250-page long bill which would maintain some special measures.

According to critics, this would enable the government to declare a so-called "state of medical crisis" and rule by decree in the future.

Under the new rules, a state of medical crisis could be called for six months and extended without specific limits. The government would be allowed to restrict some rights, suspend certain laws, and take extraordinary measures.

A group of NGOs argue that ending the "state of danger" is thus an "optical illusion" while the government can again rule by decree, potentially for an indefinite period.

The Budapest-based rights watch group, the Karoly Eotvos Institute said in its analysis that "the government wants to create the possibility of perpetuating the state of emergency, so in the future the state of emergency may be the 'normal' state".

Last month, Gergely Gulyas, Orban's chief of staff, said that compared to emergency powers during the pandemic, "the government will have extremely modest powers, but these are justified during an epidemiological preparedness".

Hungary, with a population of around 10 million, as of Tuesday has reported over 4,000 Covid-19 cases, including 565 deaths.

'Particular concerns'

The extra powers granted at the height of the pandemic were met with wide international criticism and renewed fears over the autocratic tendencies of Orban.

There had been particular concerns over the open-endedness of the special powers, and the potential threat to journalists under new rules sanctioning the spreading of false information.

The EU Commission did not find grounds to launch probes into the measures, but it expressed "particular concerns" over them.

Commission vice-president Vera Jourova said the Hungarian emergency powers "appear more extensive than in other member states".

The Budapest government argued the measures were proportionate and could be repealed at any time by parliament - which is dominated by the ruling Fidesz - or reviewed by the constitutional court - which is packed with Orban allies.

Orban, in a letter to members of his political family, the European People's Party (EPP) called the criticism the "most despicable and most cynical" attack on Hungary.

Pandemic action

During the pandemic, the government introduced a moratorium on all loan repayments, which will remain in place until the end of the year.

Among the around 100 decrees issued, the government channelled significant tax revenues away from local municipalities.

The measure, which will remain in place, prompted criticism from opposition parties, which had managed to win some municipalities last year, including the Budapest mayoral seat.

Some government critics have been arrested over critical Facebook posts and protestors issued large fines for challenging the government's measures. Military staff had been dispatched to some businesses deemed "strategic" during the pandemic.

The Orban government also used the period to end legal recognition of transgender people.

The parliament also classified details of the construction of a Chinese-backed railway link between Budapest and Belgrade, for which Hungary and China signed a 20-year, almost €1.7bn loan in April, according to Reuters.

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