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Coronavirus: Gov’t Proposes, then Drops Bill Within 17 Hours That Would Assign Defense Committees Over Mayors

Ábrahám Vass 2020.04.02.

The Fidesz-led government first announced, faced criticism, then dropped a draft bill that would have assigned defense committees over the head of the municipal leaders. The government justified the bill with the state-of-emergency and with the elimination of one-man power; critics however, saw it as yet another move towards centralization and to undermine the autonomy of the municipalities after Fidesz’s defeats in many places last year.

Under Hungary’s Civil Protection Act, the powers of municipal assemblies are taken over by the local mayor or county assembly chair in a state-of-emergency, who then governs cities by decrees and unilateral decisions. However, an amendment proposal submitted to Parliament by the government (namely by deputy PM and Christian-democrat KDNP leader Zsolt Semjén) on Tuesday night, would have made all mayoral and county assembly chair decisions subject to approval by a local defense committee.

As green liberal Azonnali showed, most members of these defense committees are appointed and not elected, although there are many experts in the membership. According to the portal, they consist of army personnel, a government delegate, the mayor himself, and a few other members. For example, the committee for Budapest includes: Karácsony, the head of the sewage works (FCSM), Budapest’s police chief, the capital’s chief medical officer, a government commissioner, and the delegate of the Government Office. Moreover, it would have been headed by Botond Sára, a former Fidesz mayor of the 8th district. The portal also notes that the defense committee would only be concerned with those decisions that the mayor would otherwise make with the representatives (budget, decrees).

The planned move, however, was loudly criticized by many of the opposition who fear that appointed government or government-linked politicians would now oversee democratically-elected politicians. According to DK deputy group leader Gergely Arató, the government practically wants to draw local councils under its control and “essentially disregard” voters’ wishes. Green liberal LMP board secretary Máté Kanász-Nagy said the government’s move was “seriously anti-democratic,” adding that general measures against the spread of novel coronavirus and those affecting the everyday lives of local residents should be separated, and authority over the latter “must not be taken away from local governments.”

Fifth district mayor Tamás Soproni (of liberal Momentum) also called the draft “unacceptable.” Hódmezővásárhely mayor Péter Márki-Zay said that “this contradicts all logic and communication so far and also largely reduces the effectiveness of the defense.”

In an interview with government-critical Index, Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony argued that such legislation wouldn’t be beneficial for the country. Only the autonomy of the municipalities would be eliminated, which makes no sense other than the total exercise of power. But it can slow down defense and cost human lives, as the city’s response time would be increased at a time when speed is needed. He also insisted that over the recent weeks, municipalities have been doing heroic work across the country, regardless of party affiliation. “All this while the central government only came up with new tasks but no financial support.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Gergely Gulyás announced that the government dropped the bill, completely changing their minds within 17 hours. The PMO Chief argued that in recent weeks the opposition parties had criticized the practice of giving mayors the power to govern without convening the municipal assembly in a state-of-emergency. The bill submitted by the government on Tuesday would have remedied this situation, he said. “But since those who until now have been critical of this regulation no longer support changing it and because the government aims to ensure the broadest possible cooperation regardless of partisan affiliation, it is willing to back down from the amendment.”

Gulyás referred to the fact that after the announcement of the state-of-emergency, in the name of the disaster management, certain (Fidesz) mayors made unilateral and not only defense-related decisions, which have faced criticism. In Szekszárd and Komló for example, the mayor alone quickly accepted the town’s contested budget.

Karácsony commented on the announcement, saying: “…this was not the time to impede each other. Now we need cooperation. Municipalities need support, not guardianship, to do their duties. I hope that today’s step back means that the government understood this as well.” According to press reports, even Fidesz mayors opposed the government taking away their powers. Székesfehérvár’s Fidesz Mayor András Cser-Palkovics publicly commented on the issue, saying that “we are happy about the afternoon developments.”

In the featured photo: MPs of the ruling parties in the Parliament. In the front row (from left to right): House Speaker László Kövér, Deputy PM Zsolt Semjén, PM Viktor Orbán, and PMO Head Gergely Gulyás. Photo by Szilárd Koszticsák/MTI