Is State of Emergency in Hungary Really Over?

Edward Hopper "Gas" // Public domain

Last week, the Hungarian parliament voted to end the state of emergency, which gave the government the power to decide by decree on issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The emergency legislation adopted in March was heavily criticized because it did not have a clear end date.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is now demanding an apology from all those who criticixed him and his government for the so-called “Enabling Act” and accused him of using the Corona pandemic to undermine democracy.

At the same time, the parliament, in which Orbán has a two-thirds majority, approved a new draft law that will make it easier for the government to continue to govern by decree.

When the Hungarian government announced that it would end the state of emergency and return its special powers to parliament, critics described the move as a political ploy: at the same time as the emergency was lifted, parliament also voted in favour of a draft law on a new, so-called “state of medical emergency”.

According to this bill, the government would be able to govern by decree again in such a case, with even less control than before. Both bills were adopted by Parliament on 16 June 2020.

The law on “terminating the state of danger” is merely a call to the government to end the state of emergency and thus the extraordinary legal order. However, the draft law does not set a deadline and the government can decide on the timing itself.

Theory Versus Reality

The second legislative proposal provides that the Government may declare a “medical emergency” on the recommendation of the Chief Medical Officer and following a ministerial proposal. The beginning and end of the medical emergency, which is not laid down in the Constitution, depends on the government’s decision.

According to the law, during the medical emergency, the government may, by decree, restrict the exercise of fundamental rights such as freedom of movement or assembly. The restrictions can initially last for six months, but can then be extended practically indefinitely. Parliamentary approval is no longer required.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and “Amnesty International Hungary” stated in a joint statement that the lifting of the threat in Hungary was “only an optical illusion”.

Like the previous law on the permanent danger situation, the new law refers exclusively to the fight against epidemics. All defence measures adopted in this context are theoretically subject to the reservation of proportionality.

In practice, however, the Orbán government has adopted a number of decrees in the past three months that had nothing to do with protective measures or proportionality.

The Corruption Research Center Budapest (CRCB), in its report published in May, states that business circles close to the Prime Minister have received more public money during the epidemic than ever before. These companies have won 74 public procurement tenders between January and April 2020.

The analysis shows that in the first four months of 2020 the risk of corruption in Hungarian public procurement reached its highest level since 2005.

Meanwhile, access to information for journalists and data protection have been severely restricted. The Corona Act allowed the government to take action against critical voices and to present them as disseminators of false reports without a court order.

Reduction of Tax Revenue for Orban-critical Municipalities

The municipalities that Orbán’s national conservative Fidesz party had lost to the opposition in the local elections the previous year were deprived of taxes and other sources of income.

A decree issued under the Corona Act stipulated that the municipalities’ revenues from vehicle tax should be transferred to the national defence fund. This deprived smaller villages of their only source of income and also led to a massive gap in the budget of larger cities.

In addition, during the Corona crisis, Parliament took the opportunity to restrict the rights of transgender people and to classify documents relating to a controversial billion-euro rail project with China as “secret”.

Critics use these examples to warn that the repeal of the “Enabling Act” is nothing more than the camouflage of a further concentration of power.

The Hungarian case shows how important it is to continuously monitor and report on the (crisis-related) government measures. Non-governmental organizations in Hungary are already doing this work in an exemplary manner.

The European Commission should take this as an opportunity to expressly include the monitoring of press freedom in the EU member states in the new “European Rule of Law Mechanism”.

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Toni Skoric
Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom