Quo Vadis Hungary? Power Grab Amid COVID-19 Crisis

William-Adolphe Bouguereau "Orestes Pursued by the Furies" // Public domain

The “Coronavirus Law” adopted by the Hungarian Parliament on March 30 did not only enable Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to govern by decree for an unlimited period of time, but also suspended elections and referendums. With the passing of the emergency law, the parliament controlled by Orbán’s right-wing conservative Fidesz party had disempowered itself.

The law also provides for prison sentences of several years for the dissemination of false news as well as for news that could cause panic. This emergency law has somewhat distracted the public from the fact that the dismantling of fundamental freedoms is not only being pursued under the banner of the fight against corona, but is continuing on all fronts.

What has Hungary as a whole been doing since the so-called “Enabling Act” was adopted by Parliament? Here is a chronicle of events:

On March 31, the Hungarian government submitted a bill to parliament that would, among other things, make it impossible for transgender people to legally change their sex. Human rights activists say that the draft law will increase discrimination and intolerance against transgender people. Many would try to leave the country, while those who do not have this chance would face daily humiliation.

On May 19, Parliament approved the law that prohibits the change of sex registered at birth by 134 votes in favour, 56 against and 4 abstentions. The law has yet to be signed by President János Áder, a close ally of Orbán.

On April 8, the government presented a draft law that classifies documents related to the extension of the Budapest-Belgrade railway line as “secret” for ten years, allegedly to protect national interests. The railway project is to be built and financed mainly by China as part of the “New Silk Road” initiative, which aims to create a trade network between Asia, Africa and Europe.

The cost of the Budapest-Belgrade connection amounts to two billion euros, which is the most expensive railway investment in Hungary’s history. The Hungarian side of the project is being carried out by a Hungarian-Chinese consortium, which includes the holding company Opus Global, controlled by Lőrinc Mészáros, a close friend of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

On May 5, the Parliament, in which the ruling party Fidesz has a two-thirds majority, blocked the ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Violence against Women and Domestic Violence.

In the midst of a worrying global rise in reports of domestic violence during Corona crisis curfews, Hungary refused to ratify the so-called Istanbul Convention because it could promote “destructive gender ideologies” and “illegal immigration”.

On May 6, the latest report by the non-governmental organisation Freedom House, was published. Hungary was classified as a “hybrid regime” that has lost its status as a “semi-consolidated democracy” due to the continued attacks by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the country’s democratic institutions.

The adoption of the Emergency Law that enables the government to govern by decree for an indefinite period of time “has further exposed the undemocratic nature of the Orbán regime,” the authors wrote, adding that “Hungary is experiencing the steepest decline they have ever seen.

On May 11, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó summoned the accredited ambassadors of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden to the Foreign Ministry because the foreign ministers of these countries had expressed their concerns about emergency powers. Szijjártó said Hungary wanted no pitiful hypocritical tutelage.

Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić also expressed her concerns about the impact of the emergency law in the EU member state: “An indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency cannot guarantee that the basic principles of democracy will be observed and that the emergency measures restricting fundamental human rights are strictly proportionate to the threat which they are supposed to counter.”

The five Northern European foreign ministers wrote in a letter on 6 May that they “share the concerns expressed by Burić”. “Even in an emergency situation, the rule of law must prevail”, the foreign ministers wrote.

In the same week, the first people to publish critical comments on Viktor Orbán’s government on the internet were arrested and accused of “spreading false information during a pandemic”. According to Hungary’s Emergency Law, the spreading of false reports both about the pandemic and about the government’s actions could result in up to five years in prison.

On Tuesday, May 12, a 64-year-old man was detained for hours in north-eastern Hungary because of a Facebook post published last month criticising the government’s emergency measures.

On Wednesday, May 13, János Csóka-Szűcs, a member of the liberal Momentum Party in southern Hungary, published a social media post on the subject of the evacuation of hospital beds for coronavirus-infected people ordered by the government. His Facebook commentary appeared on the day of the “car horn protests” against hospital restructuring and mismanagement of the corona crisis by the government.

Csóka-Szűcs wrote that 1,170 hospital beds were evacuated in his town of Gyula – an allegation that was later confirmed as true. He was detained for four hours, allegedly because he had “obstructed efforts to fight the pandemic”.

Opposition politicians declared their solidarity and demonstrated on behalf of the citizens who were arrested for allegedly spreading false information. Both arrested have been released. The public prosecutor’s office has confirmed that the police were mistaken about the two cases.

Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office Gergely Gulyás then said: “This can happen with the rule of law, that an authority makes a mistake, in which case they have a responsibility to compensate.”

On May 14, the European Union’s Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that the sheltering of asylum seekers in the Hungarian container camp Röszke near the Serbian border was illegal. The judges in Luxembourg found that the conditions in the camp were similar to detention.

The case was taken to the EU’s highest court by Hungarian judges in the southern city of Szeged. Prime Minister Orbán accused the ECJ of trying to trick Hungary into allowing all illegal migrants into the country.

On the same day, the European Parliament again debated the civil rights situation in Hungary, focusing on the Hungarian “Corona Law”. Some MEPs called for a further Article 7 procedure to be opened against Hungary for violation of fundamental rights, including freedom of expression. Some also suggested that EU funding should be made conditional on respect for the rule of law.

The request by Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga to represent Hungary in the debate was rejected. Parliament’s President David Sassoli said that Prime Minister Orbán was the only Hungarian government representative who could address the Assembly under the Rules of Procedure.

Viktor Orbán said he was too busy to take part in the debate on the Corona emergency laws in Hungary. He visited Serbia on Thursday, where he told the press that the Hungarian government had promised to return its emergency powers to parliament before the end of the month.

Democracy under Scrutiny

As the critical discussion of government measures during the Corona crisis in Hungary is suppressed, it is now more important than ever to report on and observe the democratic situation in Hungary.

The EU Commissioner for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová said: “The general states of emergency with exceptional powers granted to governments should gradually be removed or replaced by more targeted and less intrusive measures.”

She added that the Hungarian case raised particular concerns and that the European Commission was examining on a daily basis, whether it could take legal action.

The leader of the Liberal Renew-Europe Group in the European Parliament, Dacian Cioloș, said: “(…) the European Commission should propose an appropriate mechanism to make sure that, until democracy is restored in Hungary, all EU funds destined to benefit Hungarian citizens are managed directly by EU institutions.

It should also set up a specific task force to assess and monitor the democratic situation in Hungary on a permanent basis.”

The Hungarian case demonstrates the importance of continuous monitoring and reporting on government actions and also underlines the key role of communication, education and access to information in the current situation.

The article was originally published at: https://fnf-europe.org/2020/05/20/quo-vadis-hungary/?fbclid=IwAR3vKzAYy0HSStoiT-lW-wdEam2120UE8aFclOjKoK5MTcbuWZw1tP70zYI

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Toni Skoric
Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom