Coronavirus: Hungary bid to end emergency powers 'an optical illusion', say human rights NGOs

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By Rita Palfi  & Lauren Chadwick
FILE - In this March 23, 2020, file photo, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers a speech about the current state of the coronavirus outbreak.
FILE - In this March 23, 2020, file photo, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers a speech about the current state of the coronavirus outbreak.   -  Copyright  Tamas Kovacs/MTI via AP, File

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party submitted a bill to end the country's state of emergency by mid-June.

The state of emergency legislation gave the government the power to rule by decree and was heavily criticised because it had no clear end date.

But 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, claimed in a statement.

“The promise to revoke the Authorisation Act and to terminate the state of danger is nothing but an optical illusion: 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 said.

The organisations point out multiple areas of concern in the new legislation including that the government and not parliament requests to end emergency powers and that the government has added an amendment that would allow it to unilaterally restrict movement or assembly in future states of emergency.

Justice minister Judit Varga defended the legislation ending the state of "danger" on Facebook, stating that it had been a success and criticising opposition parties for running an "unprecedented disinformation campaign” against the legislation.

"Thanks to the special legal order, the Government could make quick and effective decisions in recent weeks to curb the pandemic, so unlike other countries, we have been able to avoid an outbreak, mass illnesses and thousands of deaths,” said Varga on Facebook.

Hungary’s right-wing ruling party has been heavily criticised by both civil society and opposition lawmakers over the laws issued by emergency decree during the coronavirus pandemic.

They include powers to clamp down on alarmist comments and false information stated on social media.

Orbán "exploited...the opportunities of the special legal order and the political environment," said Róbert László political analyst at think tank Political Capital.

László said that several elements introduced during special state will remain in place in the event of another state of emergency. The measures strengthened "the influence of government-friendly economic actors and thus the ruling party’s economic power," he added.

Indeed the most recent report of the Corruption Research Centre Budapest (CRCB) said that corruption in Hungarian public procurement during the first four months of 2020 "reached the highest level since 2005: by April 30, the share of contracts without competition was 41 per cent".

"The alterations to public law further weaken constitutional and parliamentary control over the government".

"It has become more than obvious by now that Orbán had no other intention but to use the power given to him during the state of emergency to further build his antidemocratic illiberal state, and to intimidate the rest of the free media under the coronavirus crisis,” said István Ujhelyi, a Hungarian Socialists & Democrats member of the European parliament.

Europe's parliament previously passed a resolution stating that the Hungarian government's actions during the coronavirus crisis were “totally incompatible with European values”.

Criticism of the emergency law "was badly misinformed, often just plain false, and all of it was shamefully biased, clearly singling out Hungary, despite the fact that similar measures in other EU countries went much further," said the government's international spokesperson Zoltán Kovács.

"Prime Minister Orbán promised at the beginning of this crisis that these extraordinary powers would stay in force only as long as necessary to protect the population and slow the spread of the coronavirus...with this move on Tuesday, the prime minister is fulfilling that promise," Kovács said.