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State of danger in Hungary

3.5 year long “state of danger” in Hungary – not reasonable, but extremely convenient for the government

The Hungarian Government declared the first state of danger more than three and a half years ago. Since March 2020, except for a few months, the Government has maintained a “rule by decree” system. Even now. This allows the Government to override acts from one day to the next, and the Government has been taking advantage of this opportunity to adopt hundreds of emergency decrees. Many of these have no connection to the pandemic or the war in Ukraine and only serve the Government’s political purposes.

Human rights organisations expressed their concerns when the state of danger was extended this spring, pointing out that the current rules violate international standards as well. Our proposals have been disregarded. From November 26, Government extended the state of danger for another six months. We still maintain that the entire regulatory framework of the state of danger needs to be reconsidered. Therefore, in our opinion submitted to the Government as part of the relevant law’s  social consultation, we reiterated our previous critical comments and drew attention to the following issues to ensure the protection of our fundamental rights even during the special legal order and to ensure that the emergency decrees serve the interest of society and individuals.

What is the main problem with the 3.5 years of rule by decree?

There are two essential problems with it. One is that in these decrees, certain fundamental rights can be easily suspended or restricted in a way that would not be possible in “peacetime”. The Government can afford itself much more than it could without a state of danger.

The other problem in the system of rule by decree is that even that little control that the Parliament’s operation provides under the current balance of power is lacking. Even if the Government is able to push through everything with its two-thirds majority in the Parliament, some justification is still necessary for the bills, and there is also a mandatory parliamentary debate. The opposition can criticise the bill in public and express its opinion. So, even though we know the outcome, the process is significant itself. However, the rule by decree does not have any of this. Currently, if the Government wants to settle an issue, someone in the office sits down in front of the computer, types in the decree, presses the enter button, and it can become law by the next day.

What were the most absurd decrees introduced referring to the war in Ukraine?

There are quite a few. For instance, the abolition of the fee for using public spaces for the fireworks display on August 20th, which is difficult to link to the war in Ukraine. This money would have been due to the opposition-led municipality of Budapest. Through an emergency decree, the Government took it from the city with the stroke of a pen.  Another example is the abolition of live public hearings, which theoretically serve to allow residents to voice their opinions. Such a decree might have been justified during the pandemic to prevent large gatherings of people, but I don’t know how it relates to the aggression against Ukraine, even though it was adopted with reference to the war. Perhaps the reason is that in some unpopular cases, such as the building of new battery factories and some other environmentally problematic issues, those in charge did not want to face the residents’ dissatisfaction personally, so it was more convenient for them to introduce written “hearings”.

The restriction of teachers’ right to strike was one of the first of such absurd decrees, and to this day, we do not know precisely how it is connected to the Russian war against Ukraine.

The list could be continued extensively, for example, with the extension of the contract related to advertisements placed on lamp posts in the capital. How does it affect Hungary’s defence capability if a pro-government company is allowed to continue using these advertising spaces? We do not know this either.

What is the point of announcing another social consultation on the extension of the state of danger if the incoming proposals will be rejected anyway?

Social consultation would only make true sense if the Government were interested in people’s opinions. The misuse of the state of danger legislation also shows that the Government is not really interested, as ruling by decree allows social consultation to be circumvented even in topics on which such consultation would be mandatory during “normal” legislation.

Social consultation, which did not work in the Hungarian legislative process for a long time, was reintroduced because it was a requirement of the European Union. In most cases, the legislative process now formally includes it as it is required by law. However, the true purpose of the process should be for the Government to understand what those affected by these planned decisions think and to take it into account. Unfortunately, the practice of social consultations shows that the Government often considers this information irrelevant. At the same time, I think it is our duty as citizens to participate in the process for three reasons. On the one hand, the Government cannot claim that despite wanting to “consult society”, no opinions are submitted by anyone. On the other hand, we have to test the system and see if anything is taken into consideration because I can criticise the practice much more credibly if I have a dozen social consultations behind me, during which our feedback was dismissed without substantive reasons. And if it turns out that our suggestions are considered, it will lead to better legislation that aligns more with human rights requirements. So I don’t think that what we’re doing is futile or trolling; despite the problems, it does have significance.

Would the end of the war also end the state of danger?

I’m afraid our Government has really grown to like the opportunity of “ruling by decree”. The introduction of the state of war danger also shows this, since the war does not impact Hungary in a way that the state of danger would be justified. During the pandemic, at least in the initial period, the use of this regime was reasonable, but now I believe it only remains in place because it is remarkably convenient for the Government.

Dr. András Kádár

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Hungarian Helsinki Committee