Understanding Viktor Orbán’s Purportedly ‘Unlimited’ Emergency Powers over Hungary

By Mario Alexis Portella

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is one of the most controversial national leaders in the Western world.  Just over a month ago, his majority Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Alliance) Party pushed through the “unlimited” emergency powers by a two-thirds majority of Parliament on March 30.

Orbán has been harshly criticized by the European Union for his firm stance in keeping (predominantly Muslim) refugees from entering Hungary ever since he closed the borders to them in 2015.  Consequently, Orbán has been accused by the international community of being an Islamophobe, especially after he said: “Islam has never been part of Europe, it came to us.  We in Hungary decide what we want or don’t want. We don’t want that.” 

What Orbán’s critics failed to mention is that Hungary, a country of just under 10 million, was ruled for over a century by the oppressive Islamic Turks and was always on the front line during the many centuries of hostility between Christian Europe and the Muslim Ottoman Empire invaders.  The Hungarian Prime Minster has thus far been able to keep his country safe from Islamic terrorism compared to the United Kingdom, France and Germany, which took in large flows of illegal immigrants.

Yet the focus is Orbán’s emergency powers, now that Hungary is reopening after its lockdown. They entail the suspension of certain Parliamentary Acts, referendums and by-elections, giving Orbán the authority to rule by decree — something France’s Emmanuel Macron is doing unrelated to the coronavirus.  The Act also calls for penal measures to be taken against anyone who “in front of a large audience, [willingly and deliberately] states or disseminates any untrue fact or any misrepresented true fact that is capable of hindering or preventing the efficiency of protection” against the coronavirus.

Naturally, all this has led to Orbán being classified as a dictator, even being compared to Russian President Vladimir Putin or Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping.  Opposition figures have suggested that Fidesz will use the prospect of a coronavirus-induced recession to extend Orbán’s power indefinitely.  Outside observers, in fact, equally warn of a dictatorship within the European Union’s borders.

István Kiss, former Hungarian official and member of the Danube Institute, dispels this contention. As he personally explained to me, there are in fact several clauses to the Act.  The constitution that governs the “state of danger” says that when the danger, i.e., the epidemic, ends, government decrees made under the emergency become invalid.  Also, the constitutional court could reject it in whole or in part, either today or after the epidemic has receded.  Lastly, Parliament can vote to end the state of emergency at any time by a simple majority.

So far as the mandate of penalizing those who spread false information or for breaking a quarantine, the former is in full force in other parts of Europe, such asItaly, where I reside.  In fact, the Hungarian Criminal Code introduced during the state of emergency is less harsh than in a lot of other countries, as for example inFrance or in the Philippines where the army and police have orders to shoot violators on site.  Private communications or opinions, however critical they may be of the government, as well as speculations or forecasts, do not fall under the aforementioned sanction.

According to The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, Orbán has been a tireless advocate of Hungarian national sovereignty.  After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Westerners came in and bought up what was left of Hungarian industry at fire sale prices.  A big reason for Orbán’s popularity is that he realized that as long as the country’s economy is controlled, or at least strongly dominated, by foreigners, Hungarians do not control their destiny.  Hence, he pulled the reins on those industries and placed them under Hungarian sovereignty.  Despite Hungarians’ reservations of their Prime Minister’s cronyism, i.e., redistributing controlling interests in those industries to his own supporters, apparently the average citizen sees this, in contrast to foreign ownership, as the lesser of two evils.

This, incidentally, accounts for Orbán’s mistrust and contempt for those who seek to undermine his socio-political vision, such as his co-national George Soros. According to Dreher:

“This is something that Western liberals do not understand — or if they understand it, they don’t accept it.  Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire, has poured a fortune into trying to turn Hungary and the other countries of the former Soviet bloc into Western-style liberal democracies…. The idea in part is to undermine traditional sources of moral authority in that country, to turn it, politically, into a Western-style [moral vacuum that would promote open borders, abortion, same-sex unions and the like].”

The physical manifestations of a pandemic are now nearly non-existent in Hungary — emergency rooms stand empty, entire villages have not reported a single COVID-19 case and almost no one has been hospitalized.  Yet the paradox of Orbán’s purported Caesar-type takeover of government is that he maintains widespread domestic support since he is viewed to represent a politics that blends nationalism and values-traditionalism with economic modernity.

Part of this, especially with the demographic decline in his country before a rising Muslim population in Europe, has been the implementation of the Family Protection Plan, in which

•   every woman under 40 years of age will be eligible to a preferential loan when they first get married;

•   preferential loans for the family home purchase scheme will be extended; families raising two or more children will now also be able to use it for purchasing resale homes;

•   families with two or more children will be repaid 1 million forints (roughly over 3,000 USD) of the mortgage loan;

•   women who have had and raised at least four children will be exempt from personal income tax payment for the rest of their lives;

•   grandparents will also be eligible to receive child-care fees and look after young children instead of the parents, the prime minister added.

I am an American who resides in Italy — where the EU has thus far done nothingfor us here during the coronavirus pandemic — and believe in government of the people, by the people, for the people.”  While Orbán’s emergency powers to rule by decree can be seen as an excessive in United States, I can understand whyhe is supported by most of his fellow Hungarians, as well as many other Westerners, and opposed by both the European Union bureaucrats and the left-wing mainstream media.


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