Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Picture: REUTERS/BERNADETT SZABO
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Picture: REUTERS/BERNADETT SZABO

Budapest — A minute before midnight, with Hungarians on edge to find out how a Covid-19 lockdown would upend their lives, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made one of his trademark power plays.

In a rush of legislative activity, his government moved to change the electoral law; enshrine Christian religious doctrine on gender and marriage in the constitution; temporarily ban demonstrations; revamp court procedures; and loosen rules governing public funds.

It was emblematic of his intensifying authoritarian grip over Hungary, which has increasingly clashed over democratic standards with the EU during his decade in power. He’s also under pressure at home over his government’s response to the coronavirus, which until this week had been one of the EU’s most relaxed despite the bloc’s third highest number of deaths per capita in the current surge.

“Orbán is once again using the virus as a cover to pass measures to cement his power, institutionalise the funneling of public funds to allies and limit the chances of the opposition in the next election,” said András Biró-Nagy, director of Policy Solutions, a think-tank in Budapest.

A few hours before the legislative barrage late on Tuesday, Orbán conceded that a surge in infections meant that without new curbs, there would have been a 50% chance of the healthcare system’s collapse.

The economy, already mired in a record slump, is bracing for a further hit from the measures, which include a night-time curfew and closing restaurants and gyms. That may potentially boost opposition against Orbán that was already ascendant after rival forces united against him last year in local elections to deal the premier’s party its worst electoral setback in a decade.

Rules proposed to “tackle fake parties” would limit the ways political forces can band together in the 2022 parliamentary ballot, where Orbán has predicted a tight race after three consecutive landslide wins.

The timing of the bills, just as a “state of danger” took effect, was reminiscent of measures Orbán approved during the first wave of the pandemic, when the government declared that a $2bn rail contract funded by China was classified, expanded state control over theatres and made other moves.

The measures are also a sign of defiance towards heightened scrutiny by the EU. Orbán has pledged to effectively veto the bloc’s €1.8-trillion spending plan, which attempts to tie funding to rule-of-law conditions. The Hungarian government — already under an EU probe over suspected corruption and the erosion of democratic standards — is concerned it will lose access to billions of euros in annual funding just as the virus devastates the economy.

The bills proposed overnight are assured approval given the Orbán’s two-thirds parliamentary majority. They’re also bound to renew debate about Hungary’s slide from core EU values and to test the bloc’s resolve to push back in earnest, including by imposing financial penalties.

An amendment the government said would “defend families” would enshrine conservative views about gender, effectively barring same-sex couples from marrying or adopting children and preventing people from legally changing their birth gender.

That resembles Orbán’s past efforts to rouse liberal anger and cast outside criticism over the rule of law and corruption as attacks on conservative Christian ideals. It also comes on the heels of a growing anti-LGBTQ+ campaign in Poland, which is also at odds with the EU over democratic standards.

“If the country is working, parliament needs to work too,” justice minister Judit Varga said on a Facebook about the package.

The proposed changes in Hungary also include limiting the legal definition of what constitutes public funds by exempting foundations endowed by the state. Both the central bank and the government have set up foundations run by Orbán allies with endowments worth billions of dollars.

“This may legalise corruption,” said József Péter Martin, director of Transparency International’s Hungarian chapter.



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