The news about Hungary’s new law granting excessive power to the Orbán government spread like wildfire throughout the international media, which often went as far as to talk about the end of democracy and the prosecution of the free press in the country. According to the government, however, these comments are politically motivated or based on misinformation, emphasizing that there are strict time and content limits to the law which clearly shows it’s not just a ’power grab.’
Hungary’s new law which was approved on Monday, provides Viktor Orbán with extraordinary powers. The legislation allows the government to rule by decree as long as the state-of-emergency is in place. According to the law’s text, the government can only exercise its power for the purpose of “preventing, controlling, and eliminating” the coronavirus epidemic, and “preventing and averting its harmful effects, to the extent necessary and proportionate to the objective pursued.”
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The legislation explicitly states: the “National Assembly may withdraw the authorization before the end of the period of state of danger.” (According to the Hungarian Constitution, it is the exclusive right of the government to declare a state-of-emergency situation, or officially a ‘state of danger’, and to declare its end as well).
Another important part of the regulation is the change to the penal code, which expands the rules on the felony of ’scaremongering’ in a special legal order. A person who “during the period of special legal order and in front of a large audience, states or disseminates any untrue fact or any misrepresented true fact that is capable of hindering or preventing the efficiency of protection is guilty of a felony,” the law states.
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It has been criticized and rejected by the opposition parties for not including a time limit or sunset clause. Also, according to its critics, the amendment to the Criminal Code is only a tool for the government to silence the free and government-critical press.
But in addition to the domestic debate, the epidemic response law also garnered huge international uproar, with some press outlets and politicians, depending on their temperament, talking about another hit to the rule of law or a newly founded dictatorship in Europe.
First and foremost, the law has come under fire by the European Commission and the European People’s Party (EPP), where calls to expel Fidesz have come up yet again.
On Tuesday, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warned member-state governments not to weaken fundamental rights and democratic values in their fight against the coronavirus.
In her statement, Von der Leyen said (without naming Hungary) that even in challenging times “it is of utmost importance that emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values as set out in the Treaties.”
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„Any emergency measures must be limited to what is necessary and strictly proportionate. They must not last indefinitely. Moreover, governments must make sure that such measures are subject to regular scrutiny,” von der Leyen writes, adding that the Commission will monitor the application of emergency measures.
Meanwhile, European Parliament President David Sassoli has asked the European Commission to assess whether regulations introduced in Hungary comply with Article 2 of the EU treaties.
In his tweet, the leftist MEP states that all members of the bloc have a duty to uphold and protect democracy and the founding values of the EU.
„Parliaments must remain open and the press must remain free. Nobody can be allowed to use this pandemic to undermine our freedoms,” Sassoli writes.
On Wednesday, thirteen countries of the EU launched a joint statement in which they express their concern over the measures taken by the Orbán government, but without mentioning Hungary.
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“In this unprecedented situation, it is legitimate that Member States adopt extraordinary measures to protect their citizens and overcome the crisis,” the governments of Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden said in the statement published on the websites of their respective foreign ministries. However, the countries added that they were “deeply concerned about the risk of violations of the principles of rule of law, democracy, and fundamental rights arising from the adoption of certain emergency measures”.
On the same day, some members of Fidesz’s own EPP party group started voicing their critical opinion.
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The Danish Conservative People’s party has called for the expulsion of Fidesz from the center-right European political family. “For too long we have watched the democratic demise in Budapest!” MEP Pernille Weiss tweeted. The party has sent a letter to EPP President Donald Tusk.
After the calls by the Danish conservatives, Tusk said the center-right party will have to review its position on Fidesz’ membership.
In a joint video with Radoslav Sikorski, one of the EPP’s Polish MEPs, the party family’s president likened Viktor Orbán to the coronavirus, Euronews reports. According to Tusk, some politicians “act like a virus, not like a vaccine” If the logic of Brexit, Kaczyński, Orbán, or Trump wins, the EU may not survive,” he said.
The relationship between Fidesz and the EU has not been without tensions for a long time. The EP voted in January to step up Article 7 proceedings against Hungary which had been originally initiated for the violation of democratic values. Also, Fidesz has been suspended from the EPP for quite some time to examine whether it has breached the values of the EPP and rule of law.
Thirteen party leaders of the People’s Party have already signed a letter to Donald Tusk asking the president of the EPP to exclude Fidesz from the party family. According to the signatories, the law is a clear violation of the principles of liberal democracy and European values.
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„We wish to express our full support to President Donald Tusk and the entire EPP leadership in upholding the integrity of our political family. We call on the expulsion of Fidesz from the EPP in accordance with article 9 of the EPP statutes,” the letter states.
In the meantime, the EU is also widely criticized for its muted response and for not condemning the Hungarian government strictly enough, while their politicians voice their opinion without even naming the country or Viktor Orbán’s name in their comments.
But European countries weren’t the only ones slamming Hungary, as the news also reached overseas with a similarly received reaction.
US politician Bernie Sanders, one of the Democratic party’s most prominent contenders to become their presidential candidate, reacted on Twitter to the epidemic response law.
“Throughout history, authoritarian leaders have used moments of crisis to seize unchecked power. Hungary’s Orban is the latest example. Now more than ever we must stand up for democracy and rule of law,” Sanders writes.
“It is shameful that PM Viktor Orbán is exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to seize dictatorial powers,” U.S. Congressman Michael McCaul, the leading Republican of the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee, said. Eliot Engel, the committee’s Democratic chair, called the new legislation a “power grab.”
The US embassy in Hungary also issued a statement with unveiled criticism of the law.
„Leaders around the world are grappling with unprecedented challenges as they tackle the COVID-19 global pandemic. As governments around the world respond, we urge them to avoid undue restrictions on essential human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the ability of the free press to provide information to the public about the crisis and the government’s response, they wrote.
But the Orbán government relentlessly states on every platform that the critiques of the regulation are either politically motivated or simply misinformed about the epidemic response law as it does not grant unlimited powers to them; moreover, it has one of the most strict mechanisms in place to rescind it.
“My suggestion to everyone: read the law!” Fidesz MEP Tamás Deutsch told Politico, declaring that there was no basis in the text for the widespread “lies” and “exaggerations” about it.”This law does nothing to weaken democracy,” he said.
The regulation does not grant the government unlimited powers, nor has the government ever wanted such authority, Zoltán Kovács, the state secretary for international communications and relations, said in an interview with the BBC on Wednesday.
Kovács stressed that Parliament has not been suspended and that the sole reason for the need to govern by decree was so that the government could continue to combat the novel coronavirus epidemic.
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On Thursday, in a video message, Kovács lambasted what he called a “witch hunt and coordinated smear campaign” on the part of the European Union against Hungary’s new law.
Hungarian President János Áder also found the new law to still assure democracy and rule of law. He emphasized that the government’s powers were limited to preventing, handling, and eliminating the spread of the epidemic, as well as to mitigating its effects. Áder also said that the new powers were not open-ended and would only last until the end of the epidemic.
In her interview with Austrian public broadcaster ORF late on Tuesday, Justice Minister Judit Varga also defended the regulation.
According to the politician, Parliament would have the right to rescind the special powers granted to the government at any time, which is a more excessive democratic guarantee than a time limit would be. The end of the state-of-emergency, however, will be determined by “objective factors,” she said. (The law in fact states that “The National Assembly may withdraw the authorization before the end of the period of state of danger” but does not contain “objective factors” to decide when the emergency situation due to the epidemic is over).
When asked whether a two-thirds majority in the parliament might not nullify this guarantee, the minister said that was a political matter rather than a constitutional one, as voters had decided on that in the previous election.
Regarding the passages on punishment for scaremongering during special legal order (the most criticized wording in the law is the up to 5 years punishment for “misrepresenting true facts”), Varga said the law aimed to “raise awareness” about the need to stay disciplined during the emergency. The prison sentence is designed for anyone who intentionally disseminates falsehoods during the related period and obstructs protection measures, she said. Expressing opinions, including criticism of the government does not come under that heading, she said.
Featured photo by Tibor Illyés/MTI