By Edit Inotai
A surprise decision by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to surrender emergency powers that critics called “dictatorial” could see him emerging as the winner in a public relations war raging since March, analysts say.
“I am ready to give back my extra powers to parliament in May,” the nationalist-populist premier declared last Friday in Belgrade while visiting his political ally, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
The unexpected move would mean giving up the ability to rule by decree without a time limit — part of a controversial “coronavirus bill” that opponents said also threatened to stifle media independence.
In another surprise step, only five days later, the Hungarian government announced that it was closing down two controversial transit zones along the Serbian border after the European Court of Justice (EJC) ruled it was unlawful to detain asylum seekers for more than 28 days.
Taken at face value, both decisions suggest Hungary is trying to realign itself with Europe after a torrent of international criticism over democratic backsliding and rule-of-law concerns. But some experts suspect Orban may have ulterior motives.
“We welcome the closure of the transit zones,” Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee human rights watchdog, told BIRN. “This is a good direction, but it is important to see what steps will follow. The same applies to the return of emergency powers.”
Pardavi said it would have been risky for Budapest to ignore the ECJ’s decision, a few days before Germany takes over the rotating six-month EU presidency from Croatia in June. Berlin has already indicated that strengthening the rule of law is a priority.
Since March, Orban has been accused of carving out a dictatorship in the EU after parliament granted him emergency powers without a sunset clause. The strongman premier argued that he needed the ability to rule by decree — and even without parliament, if needed — to respond quickly and resolutely to the coronavirus crisis.
Many critics interpreted the bill passed on March 30 as a death sentence for parliamentary democracy and accused Orban — wrongly — of closing down the legislature. That never happened.
On the contrary, Orban has spoken in plenary sessions several times and used his two-thirds supermajority to push through a number of controversial bills, such as classifying details of a Chinese-funded Belgrade-Budapest railway line, depriving transsexuals of basic rights and donating extra cash to oligarchs close to the government.
Almost two months later — and with a death toll in Hungary far lower than in most Western and Southern European countries — Orban can portray himself as the saviour of the nation from the ravages of the pandemic, analysts say.
Moreover, Orban’s spin machine can depict him as a defender of his country from the unfounded criticism of opposition parties, the leftist-liberal media and European institutions, they add.
A bill surrendering his emergency powers will be submitted to parliament on May 26 and is expected to sail through.
Timing is everything in politics, as former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau famously said. Critics of Orban say it is not an accident that the man who likes to challenge everything and everyone has taken a step back.
Along with anger among Hungarian opposition politicians and mainstream media in Western Europe, tensions have run high within the European People’s Party (EPP), the biggest political grouping in the European Parliament.
The EPP suspended Orban’s Fidesz party last March amid concerns over alleged flouting of democratic norms, and voices lobbying for the party’s full expulsion have grown louder ever since.
EPP President Donald Tusk pledged to settle the issue by September. A decision on whether to kick out Fidesz could come right in the middle of crucial talks on the EU’s next long-term budget, which do not bode well for Hungary.
The possibility of suspending EU funds for countries that do not abide by European principles of rule of law is still on the table. What is more, sources say Germany may have signalled diplomatically that with a plate full of other urgent issues, it has no desire to deal with a “Hungarian problem”.
But not everybody believes the pressure came from outside.
Agoston Samuel Mraz, director of the Nezopont Institute, which is seen as close to the government, thinks that “there was a clear time race. As the numbers of infections fell, easing measures have been introduced, and public discourse has started about the political consequences. Orban wanted to prevent the opposition from taking the initiative and demand that he hand back his extra powers. He simply overtook them.”
Mraz conceded that Fidesz closely follows EPP dynamics. The Christian Democratic Union of Germany has a lot of sway within the EPP and is likely to play a significant role in deciding Fidesz’s fate.
Meanwhile, German media have grown increasingly critical of Hungary and Orban.
“A symbolic non-aggression pact was signed between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Orban in Berlin last year,” Mraz told BIRN. “The two politicians, who previously openly criticised each other, became much friendlier. The Germans simply do not want to deal with a Hungarian issue all the time.”
Peter Kreko, director of the government-critical Political Capital Institute in Budapest, said he did not think Orban had surrendered, as such, although he found it telling that the announcement of the return of his emergency powers came just before a joint Visegrad Four meeting with German Chancellor Merkel. One of the topics on the table was the 500-billion-euro fund to finance post-coronavirus economic recovery in the EU.
“I believe Orban has achieved his goals,” Kreko told BIRN. “He has curtailed democratic and employee rights, introduced special taxes and distributed money to his oligarch friends. He could have done so without the state of emergency, but it would have taken longer and there would have been more public scrutiny.”
But some experts said Orban had played a shrewd game from the beginning, successfully manoeuvring his critics into a trap. After handing back emergency powers, they say, he can proclaim himself the perfect democrat, one unjustly accused of breaching the rule of law.
“Orban simply likes outcries so he can fight against vicious outside forces,” a diplomatic source in Brussels told BIRN. “In fact, he enjoys the show.”