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27th Jan 2023

Orbán's new state of emergency under fire

  • Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orbán's govenrment has been under EU scrunity for concerns over democratic backsliding (Photo: Council of the European Union)
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Hungary's government has declared a state of emergency and given itself sweeping new powers in the wake of the war in Ukraine, prime minister Viktor Orbán announced.

The new authority allows the Budapest government to approve measures by decree, curb fundamental rights —with some fearing it will be abused by Orbán's government to bypass parliament and stifle criticism.

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Orbán's government, which won a fourth consecutive term in April , has used special legal orders before, once due to the increased levels of migration in 2015 and more recently during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest "state of danger", to use the government's preferred term, in response to the pandemic is still in effect in Hungary but expires in June. Critics say it has been used for instance to restrict access to public data, and to prevent local referendums.

Orbán in a Facebook video on Tuesday (24 May) said the war in Ukraine represents "a constant threat to Hungary" which was "putting our physical security at risk and threatening the energy and financial security of our economy and families."

In response, a "war state of danger" would take effect beginning Wednesday, Orbán said, allowing the government "to respond immediately and protect Hungary and Hungarian families by any means possible."

On Wednesday (25 May), Orbán announced the first measures under the new emergency powers: hitting banks, energy, telecommunications, retail companies and airlines with extra taxes to finance his cap on household expenses and defence investments. He said details would be spelt out on Thursday.

Hungary's annual inflation has soared to 9.5 percent, while the budget deficit ballooned in the first quarter due to a pre-election spending spree.

The new legal order was made possible by the 10th amendment to Orbán's constitution — which was adopted in 2011 — which was approved by his two-thirds majority in parliament on Tuesday.

It authorises the government to declare a "state of danger" in the case of an"armed conflict, war or humanitarian disaster in a neighbouring country".

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC), a rights organisation, said it provides "yet another carte blanche mandate" to override the parliament with decrees.

The emergency decrees can remain in effect after an initial period of 15 days only with the parliament's support. Orbán has two-thirds support in the parliament, making that a formality.

However, the scope of areas where decrees can be put forward has "excessively widened", the Helsinki Committee said, eventually covering any policy area.

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) said the state of emergency in Hungary "has become permanent."

The rights group said the move gives Orbán "more leeway than usual," allowing him to "restrict or simply suspend everybody's fundamental rights."

"The government has already used the special legal order to achieve its own goals of power, and it was not driven by the desire to protect citizens," TASZ said in a post.

No summit?

Orbán's government has already been under EU scrutiny for democratic backsliding for over a decade.

German Green MEP Daniel Freund argued that Orbán should be excluded from the EU leaders' meeting next week for no longer being a democratic head of government.

"Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orbán should no longer participate in meetings of the European Council, until democracy is restored in Hungary," Freund wrote in a letter to European Council president Charles Michel on Wednesday.

Freund said the justification for the new state of danger is "even more far-fetched" than the one introduced during the pandemic, and argued that it allows Orbán to "rule by decree" and suspend laws without parliamentary oversight.

"Hungary was already no longer free, now it is no longer a democracy," liberal Belgian MEP, former prime minister Guy Verhofstadt tweeted.

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