Hungary between Covid-19 pandemic and Orban’s power grab

Streets are empty but people are worrying not only about the virus spread

As most of the cities across Europe the ‘Pearl on the Danube River’, Budapest, is a ghost city in the last weeks. The raging Covid-19 pandemic has emptied otherwise very vivid historical centre of the Hungarian capital, and has sown fear in the hearts of its citizens. But they are not afraid of the virus itself, rather of the government’s vigorous steps to use the outbreak to further cement its powers.

Hungary, as many other countries across the globe, declared a state of emergency in attempt to contain the Covid-19 spread. Schools, restaurants, many shops and borders to foreign citizens were closed. So far so good. This happened on 11 March, mere days after the first virus cases were registered. The state of emergency now has to be extended as the cases, as everywhere in Europe, go up.

But cunningly PM Viktor Orban’s government decided to use the situation to grab even more power than the one it has now. On 20 March Justice Minister Judit Varga submitted legislation to parliament that would extend the state of emergency indefinitely. The aim of the proposal is to allow Hungary’s government to create and rule by special decrees even if parliament does not hold a session due to coronavirus in 2020, the bill said.

Furthermore, on Monday the government tried to fast-track the bill through parliament in an accelerated procedure, which needs support from 80% of lawmakers, putting a pressure on the opposition to support it in the face of pandemic. “No one knows how long we have to maintain this state of crisis,” Mate Kocsis, head of the ruling Fidesz party’s parliamentary group, said.

However, the opposition parties have said that they want an all-party discussion about the bill before parliament holds a session. Not having such a discussion, they refused to let the government fast-track the bill. But this would only delay and not bury it as it can be put to a vote next week in an ordinary procedure and agreed by the two-thirds of the lawmakers, a majority Orban's Fidesz party enjoys in parliament. "We will solve this crisis without you," Orban told opposition on Monday adding that "the defence (against the virus) is impossible with peacetime laws".

While refusing to comment on the new bill directly, Christian Wigand, a European Commission spokesman, reminded on Monday that "any emergency measures taken to address the crisis... should be proportionate and necessary". "All emergency measures should be temporary in nature to address a particular crisis situation," he went on.

The proposal raised concerns as it would give practically unlimited powers to the government without a clear timeframe, according to Political Capital thinktank. “There is no rational explanation in the current situation for the extension of the state of emergency indefinitely,” it said in a statement.  Other NGOs and civil society groups commented that "unlimited power is no solution" to the crisis and drew parallels with what they say were the Orban government's previous attempts to remove checks on its power.

And what ordinary Hungarians think of all that? For those who are supporting Orban’s government this is a necessary step to guarantee that the battle against the Covid-19 will be won with fewer victims and in a faster manner. For his opponents this is yet another step towards an open authoritarian rule. Let’s not forget that Roman Republic was put to an end in the 1st century BC as first Sula and after him Julius Caesar were declared dictators by Roman Senate and tasked to … battle a raging crisis, a local historian reminds. Does it sound familiar to the current situation, he asks without demanding an answer.

Others simply ignore political repercussions of the coronavirus crisis and take more practical approach. Fearing the outbreak may bring out the worst in some people, many are flocking to shops selling non-military grade weapons that require no license. “If people brawl over toilet paper now, what will they do later? Once shops run out of stock, people will take what they need. Police can hardly deal with every petty theft,” a shop owner said.

So far Hungary is only in the beginning of the epidemics. With 226 registered cases and 10 deaths by Wednesday it is still too far from the numbers in the Western Europe as well as in the neighbouring Austria (5,588 cases), Czechia (1,654 cases) and Poland (1,051 cases). But this may abruptly change in the coming days as the virus continues to spread.

More on this subject: Coronavirus

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