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Hungary ends emergency powers, but new law opens up potential to re-apply them

Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban arrives for the V4 summit at the Lednice Chateau in Lednice, Czech Republic, Thursday, June 11, 2020.
Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban arrives for the V4 summit at the Lednice Chateau in Lednice, Czech Republic, Thursday, June 11, 2020. Copyright AP Photo/Petr David Josek
Copyright AP Photo/Petr David Josek
By Gabor Tanacs & Natalie Huet with AFP
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As Hungary ends its controversial "state of danger," critics remain suspicious about the powers Viktor Orbán’s government has gained from the coronavirus crisis.


The Hungarian Parliament voted on Tuesday to end the nation's state of emergency, revoking a controversial law that handed extra powers to Viktor Orbán's government to fight the spread of coronavirus without a predefined end date.

But human rights groups say the bill terminating the "state of danger" in Hungary still makes it easier for the government to rule by decree and will erode the rule of law in the EU country.

The new law leaves the possibility for the government to declare another state emergency granting it extra powers to handle an epidemic.

Orbán, who imposed a relatively early lockdown to halt the spread of coronavirus, said that ruling by decree allowed him to respond quickly and effectively to the health crisis. Hungary has reported just over 4,000 infections and 565 deaths from COVID-19.

Critics of Orbán's government at home and abroad have accused him of using the crisis to cement his rule and push the country toward authoritarianism by removing legal limitations to his power.

Orbán's supporters argued the law did not give the Hungarian government any extra power than similar laws across Europe. They said it was proportionate and could be rescinded at any time by parliament or reviewed by the constitutional court.

"They said there is an unlimited authorisation for the Prime Minister. This is not true, this is fake, this is a lie," Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó told Euronews in a recent interview.

"The Hungarian Prime Minister and the Hungarian government can only make decrees in accordance with the protection of the people against the pandemic situation."

'Totally incompatible with European values'

During the state of emergency, the Hungarian government issued more than 100 decrees, imposed sectoral taxes and took away significant financial resources from local communities that partially fell in the hands of the opposition last year.

The emergency powers also clamped down on "scaremongering" over the pandemic, sparking concern for press freedom.

In April, the European Parliament approved a statement saying Hungary’s measures were "totally incompatible with European values."

And Hungary's move to end this state of emergency has not dispelled fears of a power grab.

Several NGOs critical of Orban’s government have warned that the planned revocation of the emergency law would be an "optical illusion" leaving Hungarian authorities with enhanced powers.

The nearly 250-page legislation to end the "state of danger" will make it easier for the government to rule by decree in the future, three human rights organisations – the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International Hungary – warned last month.

"If the bills are adopted in their present form, that will allow the government to again rule by decree for an indefinite period of time, this time without even the minimal constitutional safeguards," they wrote in a joint statement.

The organisations highlighted several areas of concern in the new legislation, including an amendment that would allow the government to unilaterally restrict by decree the exercise of freedom of movement and assembly in future states of emergency.

Critics argue that the state of emergency has also limited government transparency and given extra powers to security services. Some of these changes will remain, as they have since been passed into law by the parliament, where Orbán's Fidesz party retains a majority.

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