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27 May 2022

Viktor Orbán is using the war in Ukraine to entrench his power

The Hungarian leader’s declaration of a state of emergency will allow him to ignore inconvenient restrictions.

By Ido Vock

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has declared a state of emergency allowing him to rule by decree, nominally in response to the war in neighbouring Ukraine.

The laws will prolong the government’s emergency powers, in force since the Covid-19 pandemic. The move comes days after his Fidesz party, which enjoys a supermajority in parliament, passed a constitutional amendment allowing the government to impose a state of emergency in the event of a war in a neighbouring country.

“We see the war and the sanctions from Brussels have led to a huge economic upheaval and drastic inflation,” Orbán said in a video address. “Hungary must stay out of this war, and it must protect families’ financial security.” One of the first measures announced was a windfall tax on companies including banks, large retail chains and energy providers, which will help fund subsidies on gas and electricity prices, according to the government.

The opposition immediately accused Orbán of exploiting the war in Ukraine to entrench his own power. “Orbán has a two thirds majority in parliament, but he wants to rule Hungary without any [checks],” wrote Ákos Hadházy, an opposition MP. While Fidesz has systematically dismantled many of the limitations on the government since coming to power in 2012, Orbán has got used to ruling without even those that remain. The state of emergency “has become permanent”, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) said.

[See also: Hungary’s unfair election makes a travesty of EU values]

The decrees the government will be able to impose under these new powers will be subject to less parliamentary scrutiny – not that there is much of that in a legislature already dominated by Orbán’s party. Orbán will be able to impose rules infringing on fundamental rights “beyond the extent permissible in ordinary circumstances”, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a rights watchdog, said in a statement.

The government will also be empowered to adopt regulations suspending the enforcement of certain laws. Under a normal legal regime this would not be possible, as laws trump decrees. Yet a state of emergency permits the government to issue illegal regulations, wrote the journalists Sarkadi Zsolt and Cseke Balázs. Orbán is using the war in Ukraine as a pretext to maintain the excessive powers he granted himself during the pandemic, they added.

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Hungary – which gets over half of its oil and nearly all of its gas from Russia – is one of the leading opponents of an EU energy embargo on imports of Russian energy. The EU’s sixth package of sanctions – which the EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen promised a month ago would ban imports of Russian oil – has so far failed to garner the unanimous agreement required to pass, largely because of Budapest.

Orbán is unusual among European leaders in placing a large proportion of the blame for a widespread cost-of-living crisis on EU sanctions imposed on Russia in retaliation for its invasion of Ukraine. Most other leaders, especially in central and eastern Europe, agree that while sanctions are contributing to rising energy and food prices, they are inevitable and necessary to punish Moscow for its war of aggression.

Hungary’s accommodating pro-Russia stance, which includes paying for gas shipments in roubles and opposing an EU-wide embargo on Russian energy imports, has alienated Poland, which is also led by a party of Eurosceptic nationalists who have frequently been at loggerheads with Brussels. Though Warsaw and Budapest had before the war been close allies, particularly resisting attempts by Brussels to rein them in for alleged democratic backsliding, these differences over how to approach Ukraine threaten that close relationship.

While little may stand in the way of Orbán’s increasingly sweeping powers at home, he risks isolation abroad, including from his closest allies.

[See also: The EU now has to get tough on illiberal Orbán]

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