Have you heard the joke of the month? Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, is demanding an apology from all those who criticised him and his government for the recent Hungarian law giving him unlimited powers to govern by decree. As we all recall, all EU member states’ parliaments gave special powers to their governments to fight the coronavirus. But Hungary was the only country in the EU where such empowerment had no limitation in time.
Now, the Hungarian government has submitted a bill designed – allegedly – to revoke the Enabling Act, Orbán’s very own Ermächtigungsgesetz (Hitler’s Enabling Act of 1933). Immediately afterwards, the Hungarian prime minister has theatrically demanded that his critics publicly admit their “guilt.” “Come and see, all the evil propaganda was fake, Mr Orbán did not abuse the powers he built for himself,” say his supporters. His argument does remind one of another joke from communist times. Children are playing in front of Lenin’s house. Inadvertently, they kick the ball through the window of his study. Lenin, the benign leader, returns their ball with a gentle smile on his face. “Although he could have had them shot…” – goes the punchline.
For us, who trust institutions rather than “good emperors,” Orbán’s Enabling Act remains unconstitutional, even if it was ultimately revoked. And so, instead of applauding his greatness, we remember the words of the Trojans: “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts!” Let’s therefore have a closer look at this “gift” and you will stop laughing. The list of decisions the Orbán-government havehad passed under the Enabling Act is rather controversial. Instead of revealing a mighty strategy to fight the pandemic, it gives testimony of something completely different:
- First, Orbán deprived the Municipality of Budapest of the oversight of a number of renowned theatre companies as a part of the cultural war he is waging against independent art;
- Then, he allocated a further hundreds of millions of Hungarian Forints for the construction of new football stadiums;
- He re-routed public procurements amounting to 100 billion Forints (€286 million) to his friend and oligarch Lőrinc Mészáros, who became the richest Hungarian during the 10 years of Orbán’s rule - coming a long way from his humble beginnings as a village gas-fitter, accumulating personal wealth double that of Queen Elisabeth II;
- He deprived 20,000 people of their status as public servants, the result of which means they couldn’t seek protection for losing their jobs –especially cruel during a pandemic;
- He granted special legal protection to a large-scale residential property development project in Budapest, allegedly linked to his own family;
- He championed the rejection of the Istanbul Treaty by parliament, claiming that the international convention, rather than protecting women against violence, would “destroy families”;
- He used the Enabling act to seize the management of a private company – engaged mainly in the packaging industry – placing it under military supervision, destroying its market value, and, most likely, preparing it for expropriation by government-friendly oligarchs;
- He moved to deprive local councils of tax revenues they had previously collected from large foreign investor companies, diverting these funds to Fidesz-controlled county councils;
- He handed over 41 real estate properties to churches;
- He seized a large part of local government revenues for the central budget, as an obvious revenge for the lost local elections last year. In the case of Budapest, until recently, only 3% of the city’s traditional revenues had remained at the disposal of the municipality with 97% going directly to the central government. Now, Orbán is further cutting the remaining 3%.
Orbán’s defenders face having a hard time when they wish to claim that the Enabling Act was needed to fight the pandemic.
Going further, it should be stressed that the Revocation Bill does not revoke anything. Instead, it empowers the prime minister to end the emergency – if and when he sees fit. Nor does it not annul any controversial decision adopted under the Enabling Act. So, instead of returning to normality, the new bill simply replaces the previous law with a new Enabling Act. And this new one is even worse than the one it replaces, because it completely eliminates parliament from the game, depriving it even of its fig-leaf prerogative to withdraw those emergency powers. Three outstanding democracy watchdogs in Hungary have stated that “the emergency can never end,” and, sadly, they are completely right.
In future – according to the Revocation Bill – the government would have the right to announce a medical emergency at the proposal of the Chief Medical Officer, who is, needless to point out, appointed by the prime minister. With this, the Orbán government can, at any time, return to a state of emergency similar to the current one, but this time without the slightest involvement of parliament.
Thus, Orbán continues his peacock-dance (copyright of Prime Minister Orbán himself): He is further deteriorating democratic institutions, while trying to position himself as a democratic champion. He pretends to restore constitutional order voluntarily, never admitting that he would yield to the pressure of the domestic opposition, the EU, and the international community. And, as always, even in retreat, he seeks to further advance ahead. His gesture is nothing else than a foul decoy to cover up his real motives. His demand for an apology is a sinister joke.
Nevertheless, in one thing I agree with Orbán, namely that apologies are indeed long due. It’s high time for Mr Orbán to apologise to the Hungarian people and to the Europeans for his sins.
Csaba Molnár is a Member of the European Parliament and head of the Democratic Coalition party’s delegation to the European Parliament.
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