In international media there was some confusion about the bills passed through emergency decree-power and the regular parliamentary law-making which continued throughout the emergency. However, it is clear that transitioning from the state of emergency to a medical crisis later this month does not end Orbán’s rule-by-decree.
According to the Minister of Justice, Judit Varga, the state emergency and the special legal order will end on 20 June. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the widely criticised Coronavirus Act was approved on 30 March, granting the power to the ruling Fidesz party to govern the country by decree.
Contrary to what was erroneously suggested by CNN, the act did not lead to the closure of the Parliament, it was in session same as before. This mistake of sloppy journalism is quoted cynically ever since by the Hungarian Government to discredit and dismiss the portrayal of Hungary in the “Western Media” as fake news.
Both foreign and domestic media initially reported many of the newly passed bills in a misleading way. The articles often implied that the new act granting Viktor Orbán the power to rule by decrees – also known as the Authorisation Act – was related to these or even that it was what made passing the bills possible.
Unless we make a clear distinction between the bills passed through the emergency decree-power and the regular parliamentary law-making which also continued throughout the emergency, it might seem that Orbán’s Fidesz party is able to shrink the freedom of Hungarians only in the new rule-by-decree situation.
But we must not forget that, even though the Parliament remained functional, Fidesz is governing with a supermajority of the seats (two-thirds despite getting 49 per cent of list votes at the last election). This means that all decisions of the assembly equal the agenda of one party. For a decade now, most if not all passed legislation came exclusively from Fidesz.
Also, this is why speaking about a parliament in-session, sadly, cannot be interpreted as a sign of a functioning democracy.
If we have any doubts about Fidesz’ abuse of emergency situations for extending their grip, it is useful to remind ourselves that Hungary is struck by legal regulations because of another crisis as well. In 2015, a state of crisis was declared due to “mass migration” which granted additional powers to armed forces and the police.
The state of crisis initially applied only to certain counties but in 2016, the government extended it to the whole country. The reasoning behind the extension, despite an 84 per cent drop in the number of people seeking asylum the same year, has been classified for ten years.
Meanwhile, under the guise of defending Hungary and the EU from “migrants”, the government treated defenceless people with inhumane, systematic and racialised cruelty unseen in the country perhaps since the Holocaust. This state of emergency is still in force today: it has been extended seven times, last on 6 March during the pandemic.
No matter what the original intentions behind the Authorisation Act were, Orbán announced he will give up his rule by decree.
Until then, to remember, here is a summary of a few decrees made under the Act XII of 2020 on the containment of coronavirus which show how its legislative power was used beyond what it was meant for: “the protection of the health and lives of Hungarian citizens”.
Modifying the criminal code to include spreading false information as a felony
Anyone hindering the fight against the pandemic with an “untrue fact or any misrepresented true fact” (e.g. fake news, disinformation, conspiracy theories) can face up to 5 years in prison. Like the rest of the world, Hungary is facing a serious problem of Coronavirus denial and COVID-19-related fake news (Act XII of 2020, Sect. 10).
A growing network of petty criminals is actively spreading conspiracy theories through popular Facebook pages and massive Facebook groups. Reaching tens of thousands of Hungarians, these charlatans try to convince their audience that the coronavirus epidemic is a fabrication fuelled into mass hysteria by the media, a harmless disease in reality if it even exists.
Meanwhile, they con them into giving their money by offering non-infected people various supplements, intravenous Vitamin C or Ayurveda based treatment, none of which are backed up by scientific evidence. Based on their daily activity and growing audience, they have not been charged under the new law.
The failure to effectively and consistently apply the law is not surprising: it would be paradoxical by a government which constructs ideological narratives using fake news and disinformation spread by its media empire which includes the public broadcast. Under the new law, how would these news outlets fare which use anything related to coronavirus for political purposes while telling their audience that 5G kills birds or suggesting that it is safe to sunbathe during the warmest hours as sunscreen is the cause of cancer?
Most of the actual investigations resulting from this law have targeted people not involved in any criminal, pseudo-medicine scheme, for example, a couple of elderly government-critical individuals who eagerly reached for their keyboards to pen angry opinion posts on Facebook, gathering as many as 20 shares. When two of them were taken from their homes in chains by the police, initial fears of a silencing effect of the law amplified, even though later all charges were dropped.
One of them, a 64-year-old woodworker, called Orbán a dictator and questioned the timing of easing the restrictions while the other, a pensioner living in a small town posted the – probably more or less correct – number of patients forced out of his local hospital to vacate beds for coronavirus patients.
With no meaningful application of the law, only cherry-picking random social media users, it is difficult not to see the goal as spreading fear among people who are not supporting the government.
Under the threat of committing a felony, independent journalists might feel the need to think twice before voicing any criticism of the government during the pandemic. To make the message even clearer, the pro-government media has turned up their campaign against independent media, adopting rhetoric that now conjures the possibility of legal consequences. Shamefully masquerading as advocates of truth, a news programme of the Hungarian public TV broadcast launched a segment in which they “uncover fake news”. In reality, this means targeting journalists of the independent press, accusing them of producing fake news.
Other Fidesz mouthpieces have quickly followed, the in-house economic research institute Századvég also started a Fake News Watch and collects coronavirus “fake news” exclusively from the left. How must it feel to be an independent, critical journalist while the government-backed media effectively threatens you with committing acts that are punishable with jail?
Deploying military personnel to supervise companies
In order to ensure the operation of companies deemed essential in the infrastructure for fighting coronavirus, members of the military and the police were sent to join the boards and participate in their operation. The Ministry of Defence identified 140 of such companies but refused to provide the full list of names to the independent press. Military presence at the organisations comes with their authorisation for access to the company’s financial information and having the final say in their budgetary decisions (1109/2020., III. 18.).
While sending armed forces might not be the most reassuring way of communication between companies and the state, it falls in line with the idolisation and slow re-establishment of military culture in the country. Following news of mass unemployment due to the pandemic, Orbán suggested that the remedy could lie in working for the army.
He also offered another option: becoming public workers in the widely criticised system of state employment scheme.
Military and police forces taking control of hospitals and care homes
More than a hundred healthcare institutions received new leadership under the so-called hospital commanders, who – with no required medical or institution managing experience – effectively demoted the hospital directors. Supervised by the Minister of Internal Affairs, their task is to monitor medical resources and control their usage. Even though the medical staff is obliged to follow orders from their new hospital commanders, the institutions’ directors still have to take responsibility for any incidents (72/2020., III. 28.).
A measure following the decree on 7 April ordered hospitals to vacate 50 per cent of their beds in a week for potential coronavirus patients. This equals 32 900 beds, a number which according to experts does not fit any realistic prognosis of the number of coronavirus patients in Hungary.
Even if some beds were already empty, the result was thousands of patients – many with chronic or terminal illnesses, in need of constant care – were sent to alternative facilities or simply home, possibly resulting in several deaths.
There are many theories about why this decision was made but no official explanation is available. Journalists are currently in a legal battle with the ministry in order to acquire the original instructions for vacating the beds. The minister Miklós Kásler later issued a statement denying such an order was made and blamed doctors for sending patients home.
Draining the budgets of municipalities
In 2019 the local elections came with the significant expansion of the opposition. Besides winning in cities with county rights, it resulted in a sweeping victory in the capital Budapest, where the opposition won most of the districts, had their candidate elected as mayor, and gained majority in the general assembly of the city (92/2020., IV. 6.).
The decree passed under the Coronavirus Act, ordered the municipalities’ income from vehicle tax to be channelled into the national defence fund.
This deprived smaller villages of their only source of income and also created a massive gap in the budget of larger cities. Further decisions continued bleeding out the budget of municipalities: waiving the fee paid by the hospitality sector for using public spaces (168/2020., IV. 30.), and making parking free in the whole country (87/2020., IV. 5.).
Establishing special economic zones
With the aim of preventing negative consequences of Covid-19 pandemic on the economy, the government marked special economic zones. The first of such happened to be the Samsung Factory in Göd, a city which last year replaced its decade-long Fidesz rule by electing an opposition mayor (135/2020., IV. 17.).
Becoming a special economic zone, effectively meant that nearly 20 per cent of the area of Göd was put under the administration of the county council – where Fidesz has a majority.
Consequently, the tax revenue from Samsung will be received by the county council, resulting in Göd losing more than a third of their yearly budget. The move also blocks local citizens from having a say about the ever-expanding factory that had received complaints, for example, about its handling of hazardous materials.
Modifying the labour code
Before the state of emergency, companies were required to inform workers about any change in their work schedule at least 96 hours in advance. The decree removed this requirement, granting employers the right to unilaterally change their employees’ working times with prior notice (47/2020, III. 18.).
In addition, with the mutual agreement of both parties, they can deviate from any regulation found in the code which before was allowed only if it benefitted the employee.
One could optimistically say that this allows more flexibility in an extreme situation like a global pandemic, but with thousands becoming unemployed, the lack of government support, and the looming financial crisis, I wonder how many workers have the power to resist any kind of coercion.
Orbán will take back his rule by decree
In the cynical narrative of Fidesz, revoking the special legal order will prove that their “liberal” critics were “wrong” or “lying again, democracy in Hungary is alive and well. At the same time, though the state of emergency will theoretically come to an end. The submitted bill (T/10747) does not effectively terminate it. It only requests the government to create a proposition for itself to do so – when it sees fit, no date specified.
With the same stroke of a pen, a second bill (T/10748) was submitted. It replaces the emergency with a state of medical crisis for at least six months. The new legal order of the medical crisis lends the government the authority to restrict the freedom of movement and assembly, access to healthcare and close businesses and shops.
Three of the most prominent Hungarian civil watchdog organisations issued a joint statement warning about the dangers of the new legal order. They pointed out that the bills remove a crucial safeguard from the Disaster Management Act which guaranteed that the government can only suspend laws insofar what the mentioned act allows.
It becomes clear that transitioning from the state of emergency to a medical crisis does not end Orbán’s rule-by-decree.
Instead, it extends it indefinitely and removes the last remaining constitutional safeguards, allowing the government to deviate from the constitution in any way it deems necessary.
Let us not forget: Fidesz is and will be using narrative strategies of the alt-right to distort the truth, appropriate words, and divert attention by false comparisons. A smoke-and-mirrors “national consultation” has already been launched in Hungary, and the party’s Kremlin-style disinformation sites are spreading virally at the international level.