Hungary may be blocking sanctions on Russian energy and refusing to send military assistance to Ukraine, but its response to war across the border is anything but relaxed. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on Tuesday announced a new state of emergency to deal with a situation which he said is “putting our physical security at risk and threatening the energy and financial security of our economy and families.”
The introduction of the new state of emergency followed the passage of a constitutional amendment, tabled by Justice Minister Judit Varga, allowing the use of emergency powers in the event of a war or humanitarian disaster in a neighbouring country. The change will allow Orbán’s Fidesz government to “suspend the application of certain laws, derogate from legal provisions and take other extraordinary measures in order to guarantee the life, health, personal property, legal security and the stability of the national economy.”
In essence, the new emergency state is an extension of the pandemic state of emergency which was due to expire at the end of May. It’s similar to a state of emergency currently in place in the Czech Republic – another country welcoming hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees and facing the economic blow of sanctions against Russia – which allows certain laws and regulations to be set aside while fast-tracking measures which might otherwise be held up by parliamentary scrutiny.
Widespread international portrayals of Orbán’s extended emergency powers as a cynical power grab are probably unfair, especially given the Czech Republic’s use of a similar mechanism. But the Hungarian government’s eagerness to side-line debate should still be questioned.
Viktor Orbán is a political animal who thrives on portraying a sense of danger. Whether it’s the demonization of opposition figures as communist puppets keen to wreck the economy while sacrificing traditional Hungarian values on the altar of “LGBT ideology,” or the suggestion that supporting Ukraine militarily would inevitably lead to Hungary being drawn into a full-scale war with Russia, presenting a sense of imminent crisis is a key element in Orbán’s extraordinarily successful political style.
The tactic won him a landslide majority in Hungarian general elections in early April. Buoyed by this victory, he has doubled down on Hungary’s isolationist stance over war in Ukraine. Hungary is refusing to budge in its rejection of energy sanctions on Moscow; with EU leaders set to meet in Brussels at the end of May, diplomats are pessimistic about their ability to get Hungary on side with a proposed embargo on Russian oil.
Hungarians voted for this isolationism, but as the international pressure mounts, prolonging the sense of looming crisis may be vital in helping to justify Orbán’s obstinacy. Many will accept the reasoning that if the economic threat of the Ukraine crisis and sanctions on Russia – described by Orbán as a potential “nuclear bomb” dropped on the domestic economy – is so great, prudence in resisting further sanctions may be the better part of valour.
There’s a political calculation behind Hungary’s new state of emergency, then – but the practical necessity of the move is harder to grasp. Fidesz’s crushing election victory gave it a renewed two-thirds supermajority in parliament. This, along with the remarkable loyalty of Fidesz MPs (backbench rebellions are almost non-existent in Hungary) already gives Orbán a high degree of freedom to push through legislation and amend the constitution as he sees fit.
This power raises legitimate questions about what exactly Orbán gains by imposing the new state of emergency. What’s more, the humanitarian crisis forming a large part of the justification for the new emergency powers seems to be slowing down: volunteers helping refugees report a sharp drop in arrivals from Ukraine and claim numbers above 10,000 said to be crossing the border each day by Hungarian police must be inflated.
Meanwhile, the economic threat potentially posed by a Russian oil ban remains undiminished. But it’s hard to see why Orbán requires special powers to counter an economic catastrophe which has not even happened yet.
The Hungarian government isn’t alone in wielding emergency powers to deal with the impacts of war in Ukraine. But in Budapest, as in Prague, concerns are growing that leaders have become disturbingly accustomed to the extraordinary powers which they accumulated during the pandemic. Then, the side-lining of debate and scrutiny was described as a one-off move to save lives from a rapidly spreading virus. Now, it seems to be a go-to response whenever difficult decisions need to be taken.
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