The Politics of Crisis: emergency powers law ignites international firestorm

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As economies slowed across the world while billions of people stayed at home under recommendations or orders by their governments, the pace of political developments in Hungary ramped up to astonishing speeds as the Fidesz-controlled parliament handed the government extraordinary powers.

As we wrote in detail last week, the government introduced an emergency powers bill that would allow it to implement resolutions without parliamentary approval, effectively a license to rule by decree. These powers and decrees would remain in force until the end of the state of emergency, giving the government unchecked authority for an indefinite period. New laws included in the bill make it a criminal offence to inhibit the government's efforts to combat the coronavirus, and disseminating false or otherwise alarming information could be punishable by up to five years in prison.

On Monday, the Parliament's Fidesz supermajority passed the emergency powers bill after refusing to make a single modification proposed by the opposition parties, which expressed support for granting the government new powers if they were bound by a time limit. 

The Hungarian Parliament convenes on Monday.Fotó: Máthé Zoltán/MTI/MTVA

In the five days since the passage of the bill, leaders from around Europe have scrambled to define a response to what they fear is a crackdown on civil liberties, rule of law and freedom of the press, while the Hungarian government remained defiant and introduced a raft of additional legislation that appears intended to consolidate more power into the hands of the Fidesz party.

Here is a summary of the timeline of events this week.

Concern and Condemnation

Prior to the vote in Parliament on Monday, the European Commission and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) urged the government to uphold all European norms in its fight against the coronavirus, and to include in the bill a time limit and provisions for parliamentary oversight.

Despite the appeals from international organizations and Hungary's own opposition parties, the emergency powers bill passed in Parliament on Monday with 137 affirmative votes, 53 dissentions and zero abstentions. President János Áder signed the bill into law fewer than two hours later, arguing that it does not conflict with Hungary's constitution or any international treaties. 

Contrary to statements by opposition MPs, Áder wrote, the law does contain a time limit because it will lose its effect as soon as the epidemic is over. (Áder did not address the legal uncertainty concerning what constitutes the end of the epidemic and who is authorized to make that determination.)

In the days following the bill's passage, European and international organizations released statements condemning it and demanding that the Hungarian government ensure that its application be proportional to the crisis and constrained by checks and balances. The European Commission announced it would examine the law, drawing special attention to the provisions which allow for prison sentences for those deemed to have spread false information related to the pandemic. 

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.Fotó: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency

EC President Ursula von der Leyen released a statement on Tuesday (not mentioning Hungary directly) urging EU member states to preserve the basic principles and values of the EU in the measures they take to contain the pandemic. Von der Leyen's response, as well as a statement adopted by 13 EU member states calling for the preservation of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights, was seen by some as inadequate for its failure to mention Hungary directly. (In what 444 called "maximum troll diplomacy", the Hungarian government released a statement on Thursday announcing that it, too, would join the statement issued by the 13 member states.)

The US Embassy in Budapest released a statement calling on governments to "avoid 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." The statement did not mention Hungary.

Politicians in the United States also reacted to the passage of the law. In addition to criticism from several other US congressmen, Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders wrote on Twitter, “Throughout history, authoritarian leaders have used moments of crisis to seize unchecked power. Hungary’s Orbán is the latest example. Now more than ever we must stand up for democracy and rule of law.” 

Perhaps most significantly for Fidesz, members of the European People's Party (EPP) began to signal their intentions to expel Hungary's governing party from the center-right party group. First, the Danish Conservative People's Party sent a letter to EPP president Donald Tusk requesting Fidesz's exclusion from the EPP, and encouraging other member parties to do the same.  

Two days later, leaders of 13 EPP member parties from 11 countries wrote a letter to Tusk calling for the expulsion of Fidesz from the EPP. The signatories, including the prime ministers of Greece and Norway, wrote: 

"We have followed the degradation of the Hungarian rule of law for some time. Fidesz is currently suspended from the EPP due to its failure to respect the principle of rule of law. However, the recent developments have confirmed our conviction that Fidesz, with its current policies, cannot enjoy full membership in the EPP."

The letter meets party requirements for placing Fidesz's expulsion on the EPP agenda, bringing Fidesz closer than ever to permanent exclusion. Making such a conclusion seem even more likely, Tusk wrote a letter to EPP member parties on Tuesday in which he said, "Many of you, even if you criticized PM Orbán for his previous decisions, did not agree to expel Fidesz from our political family...The time will soon come, when you will have to again re-consider your positions." 

For her part, Von der Leyen mentioned Hungary by name in a statement on Thursday, in which she wrote, "I am afraid some measures have gone too far, and the situation in Hungary gives us particular cause for concern."

Crisis response

On Tuesday, one day after the passage of the emergency powers law, deputy prime minister Zsolt Semjén (KDNP) submitted an omnibus bill to Parliament which contained numerous amendments unrelated to the coronavirus pandemic which would give the government even more control over public life even after the pandemic has come to an end.

Deputy prime minister Zsolt Semjén in Parliament on Monday.Fotó: Máthé Zoltán/MTI/MTVA

Among the measures proposed by the draft bill: 

The first provision would amend the Disaster Management Act to take away the autonomous authority of mayors to exercise the powers of local councils during the state of emergency. Decisions by mayors would go before county defence councils, which would have five days to approve or reject them. The 20 councils across Hungary are chaired by political appointees, 13 of which are or were connected to Fidesz-KDNP.

The provision sparked outrage among opposition and, reportedly, Fidesz mayors who argued that it would slow down their ability to make important decisions on pandemic protection measures. Some mayors criticized the proposal as undemocratic, and suggested it was an attempt to reverse the results of 2019 municipal elections in which opposition parties took control of numerous cities. 

In an unexpected reversal, the government announced on Wednesday that it would retract that portion of the omnibus bill.  

In announcing the retraction, the prime minister's chief of staff Gergely Gulyás said that in light of the criticisms of the provision, "and since the government is seeking the widest possible cooperation in the emergency regardless of party political boundaries, it will dispense with this amendment and mayors may continue to exercise their prerogatives under the state of emergency as before." 

Gulyás' conciliatory tone and call for wide interparty cooperation seemed to contradict a statement Viktor Orbán made from the floor of Parliament last week, when he told the opposition parties, "We're going to solve this crisis without you."

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