May 21, 2020   5 mins

On Friday 15th May, Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán seemed to pull the rug out from under his critics. At a press conference in Belgrade that afternoon he told reporters he expected to surrender his powers to rule by decree “around the end of May“. The move would “give everyone the opportunity to apologise to Hungary for the false accusations they made against us in the past months” he claimed.

The surprise announcement in Serbia came a day after a heated debate on  Hungary in the European Parliament — a debate which Orbán had conspicuously declined to attend. MEPs who on Thursday called for tougher EU actions against Budapest were seemingly left high and dry on Friday. Criticism of Hungary’s 30 March ‘Enabling Act’ by OSCE, the Council of Europe and the International Bar Association was made to look hysterical. Yet, things are not as they seem.

Orbán’s most recent manoeuvres fall into a long-established pattern of strategic feint and dodge. He has, in a private May 2012 address to Fidesz policy staff, termed this his “dance of the peacock“. Hungary’s PM is adept at camouflaging the destructive inside the outrageous. The former can be smuggled past international bodies more readily if one appears to retreat on the latter. Meanwhile the theatricality of ‘performative transgression’ blurs distinctions between real and apparent danger while simultaneously moving the frontier of accepted behaviour.

Justification for creating an ‘extraordinary legal order’ in Hungary — a situation bypassing normal legislative and/or judicial procedures — was always shaky. The country already enjoyed robust legal provision for tackling pandemics, notably the 1997 Act CLIV on Health and the 2011 Act CXXVII on Emergency Management. Extensive powers to activate public safety measures (including a general curfew) were thus available on the basis of pre-existing laws. This year’s novel emergency powers had ends other than infection control.

Actions taken under cover of the emergency have seriously destabilised the already precarious functioning of Hungary’s opposition parties. Though Orbán may soon surrender the power to govern by decree that does not, in and of itself, equate to annulment of emergency laws enacted to date or mitigation of their lasting effects. In the last week, Fidesz has in fact taken additional procedural steps to ensure that the most damaging legislation survives formal cessation of the emergency.

More than 70 special decrees have been enacted under the emergency powers, many with scant relation to the presenting crisis. Perhaps the most worrying to date is no. 135/2020. This decree has been employed punitively against municipalities which voted for opposition parties in the October 2019 local elections.

The decree confers power on central government to create so called ‘Special Economic Zones’ (SEZs) within the territory of local authorities. However, the true purpose of these zones is not assisting post-Covid economic recovery via the relaxation of regulation or tax burdens. Rather their function is the transfer of freehold title and planning control of land owned by municipalities, together with the levy of local business taxes, to the county-level governments.

This is significant. Victory for the united opposition in Budapest’s mayoral election last autumn made international headlines. However, it was the electoral breakthrough in provincial cities, approximately half of which turned to the opposition, that really spooked the Hungarian government.

The power to transfer assets and tax receipts to county governments (all Fidesz controlled) now affords a means of retribution — pushing opposition towns toward bankruptcy. The most striking use of these powers has been in the town of Göd (population 17,000), 12 miles north of Budapest.

Göd, which recently saw the opening of a large Samsung factory, elected a Momentum (liberal party) mayor in 2019. The industrial site and its tax revenues have been designated a SEZ and Göd has lost one fifth of its territory together with one third of its income. According to the town’s mayor, Csaba Balogh, “[this] is practically a death sentence” (financially speaking).

The fate of opposition towns is echoed by the predicament of opposition parties. The latter rely on state funding allocated according to their number of fielded electoral candidates and actual MPs. Although the headline figure of a 50% cut in public funding for 2020 under the emergency procedure is dramatic, the reality is even harsher. Opposition parties will lose 100% of their funding for the second half of 2020 — a ruinous financial cliff edge.

Fidesz is insulated from the effects of the cut. Unlike its rivals, the party boasts a powerful network of oligarchic backers whose wealth derives from the allocation of state contracts. Much of Fidesz’s political advertising is subsumed within ‘government information’ campaigns and its activists paid out of public funds allotted to so called ‘civic organisations’. The OSCE has described this arrangement as ‘pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources’. Furthermore, unlike opposition parties, the Fidesz-aligned oligarchs have been deliberately shielded by the government from financial “burden sharing” in relation to the pandemic.

Some activities carried out under the emergency powers evoke a more sinister register. The deployment of army logistics experts to ‘strategically significant’ companies has brought some beneficial effects. However civilian managers have been alarmed by the concerted effort embedded military staff have devoted to extracting the personal data of employees and clients together with sensitive intellectual property.

There is more to the present situation than the use of Prime Ministerial fiat. A confusing feature of recent weeks has been the continuance of ‘normal’ mechanisms of legislative activity alongside extraordinary ones.

The maintenance of parliamentary law-making in parallel with decree powers has allowed Zoltán Kovács, Undersecretary for International Communications, to dismiss concerns like those raised by Stephen Sackur of the BBC’s Hard Talk (26 April) that Hungary has entered full-blown dictatorship. The overlap has also afforded useful culture wars camouflage for authoritarian consolidation.

A global health emergency is an odd time to occupy a national legislature with votes on the definition of gender in domestic and international law. At the end of March, deputy PM Zsolt Semjén, leader of Fidesz’s Christian Democrat/KDNP satellite party, tabled a bill to parliament, a clause of which replaced the ‘gender’ category of the Civil Registry (and ID documents deriving from it) with one entitled ‘sex at birth’ — effectively making the legal dimension of gender transition impossible. This stirred up an international controversy — attracting extensive hostile coverage in the UK from media outlets like BuzzFeed and The Guardian.

The timing of the Semjén bill’s initial presentation, within a day of the Enabling Act’s passage, was strategic. It successfully diverted world media attention from the specifics of the Act and the structural damage inflicted by decrees made under it. It’s the reassigning of tax receipts more than gender identity that Fidesz really cares about.

Further controversy was stirred up when the Hungarian parliament formally rejected the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence — a.k.a. the ‘Istanbul convention’.

The chief ground for rejection was the document’s alleged ‘social construction of gender’. Again this resulted in strong criticism from concerned NGOs and headlines of the ‘Parliament blocks domestic violence treaty’ sort.

What hardly anyone noticed was that, legally speaking, nothing actually happened. Orbán’s Fidesz-KDNP government has failed to ratify the Istanbul Convention ever since signing it in 2014. The policy of inaction has been pursued despite Hungary’s shockingly high rates of domestic violence (among the worst in Europe). Fidesz’s foot-dragging might even be a case of ‘because’ rather than ‘despite’: breaking the strong social taboo around domestic violence would be unpopular.

While changing nothing in law the parliament’s adoption of a “political declaration” opposing the convention did heighten Hungary’s prominence in the trans-issue culture wars, thus diverting journalistic attention from other things the government was doing at the time. Emotional outrage, however justified, is handy for forestalling forensic analysis. The peacock was shaking its feathers again.

To be understood aright these recent legislative moves need reading against earlier statements of intent. In September 2008 Orbán, still in opposition, told party loyalists gathered at the village of Kötcse, near Lake Balaton, that the next Fidesz government would constitute a “central political field of force” able to hold power for a generation. On 24th October 2019, Hungarian Parliamentary Speaker László Kövér, one of Orbán’s closest confidents, told students at the National Public Service University, Budapest “the system of checks and balances is crap, forget about it”.

Perhaps now they safely can.

Alexander Faludy is a law student and freelance journalist.