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Despite the pandemic, Fidesz shows no signs of slowing down

D MTZ20200502013

The Hungarian government declared a state of emergency a little over two months ago, on 11 March. Since then, they have been churning out bills completely unrelated to coronavirus as if a pandemic was not spreading across the country and we weren't on the brink of a recession of historic proportions. Sacking theatres, putting participants of public works programmes and public employees in the cultural sector in their places, pouring billions of Forints into sports, playing state-owned real estate over to friendly circles, reducing transparency, financially suffocating opposition-led municipalities - Fidesz did not slack off during the quarantine.

The Coronavirus Act that granted the government unprecedented emergency powers for an indefinite term caused a huge uproar; leaders of EU countries objected the law, the European People's Party once again began pondering the expulsion of the Hungarian governing party, and press on both sides of the Atlantic had intensely covered it as well.

In response to the criticism, government officials - especially Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó - usually say that it's all fake news and proceed to wonder about how foreign politicians find the time to criticise Hungarian legislation. As Szijjártó said in the Hungarian Parliament's foreign affairs committee:

Now, when we are facing a crisis where hundreds of thousands of experts are trying to find a way out, a crisis where people in Europe die every day without - thank God - a war, then, then we have these people who have the time for this. This is what I cannot get through my head, how this is possible. I don't know if their days consist of 25 hours, or 28, or 30.

Another returning element in the communication of the governing party is that this is not the time for party politics and the most important thing would be to combat the pandemic and protect the economy. But similarly to their critics, Fidesz also seems to have found time to take a break from coronavirus and deal with some other things as well.

There are several plausible explanations for the government's increased activity. For one, the current situation, when public attention is concentrated mostly on COVID-19, gives the government the opportunity to push decisions through that would otherwise prompt major resistance. The ten-year classification of all documents connected to the country's largest railroad development project ever probably would have created some political tension a few months ago, similarly to how the classification of the Paks II nuclear power plant construction project's contracts thematised public discourse for months.

Another approach suggests that these are mere distractions: the government could be taking these drastic steps in all these different areas at the same time exactly to direct the public eye away from the way they are handling the pandemic and the economic crisis in its wake. The opposition and independent opinion-formers have heavily criticised the government response to the epidemic because of the low number of tests early on, freeing up hospital capacities prompted heavy disputes even in government circles, and compared to other European countries, Hungary provides little support to those who lost their jobs because of the epidemic.

A third option is that this surge in legislation is a message to international public opinion as it was a common fear in European politics that Fidesz is about to "shut down" the Hungarian Parliament since they passed the Coronavirus Act, but lawmakers of the governing coalition never miss a chance in Parliament to point out that "despite the fake news spread abroad, we are still here, we are still passing laws, and we are still arguing with the opposition."

Here are just a couple of bills submitted to the Parliament in recent weeks:

Theatres snatched from Budapest, cultural sector in peril

At the end of March, the Parliament amended the Act on Culture in an accelerated procedure without any consultation whatsoever, according to which Minister of Human Capacities Miklós Kásler will become the immediate supervisor of the directors of all Budapest theatres jointly maintained by the city and the state.

A month later, public employees in the cultural sector - approximately 20 000 people - found out that their publicly employed status will soon be jeopardised by an omnibus bill submitted by Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén. If passed, the new legislation will place them under Labour Code rules, giving employers greater freedom in terminating contracts and setting wages. 

Hundreds of millions for stadiums

The Ministry of Human Capacities (also in charge of healthcare) and the Szombathely MÁV Haladás Sports Club agreed that the Ministry will give 300 million Forints to cover the upkeep of the club's stadium. The decision was made in February, but the payment was uninterrupted by the coronavirus situation.

At the same time, the government decided to reallocate the 400 millions of financial support for the renovation of opposition-led District IX's community centre to the coronavirus response fund instead.

The government also took away 1.1 billion Forints from another opposition-led Budapest district, the VIII as well. The money was supposed to facilitate developing low-income housing, daycare services, and kindergartens, but this too was poured into the epidemic response fund. 

Hungarian business news site Mfor.hu gathered the government's sports-related expenditures that were approved since the introduction of the state of emergency, and including all tenders, developments, and investments, the final sum is nearly 10 billion Forints.

Stocks and real estate played over to friends

Another bill submitted by Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén would hand a smaller fortune to the Mathias Corvinus Collegium - the institute operated by a foundation of András Tombor, a former advisor of PM Viktor Orbán, is about to get 10% of the government's portfolio of MOL and Richter-Gedeon stocks (81.9 million and 18.6 million shares respectively) and property that the MCC already uses, all free of charge.

Another one of Semjén's proposals seeks to gift two high-value properties in Buda to a foundation lead by Mária Schmidt, an important stakeholder in Fidesz's memory politics.

Stricter conditions in public works programme

A bill submitted to the Parliament by the government in April aims to set stricter conditions for participation in the country's public works programme, namely that the applicants' living spaces must be neat and tidy - if not, they could be barred from the programme for three months. Cleanliness seems to be of the utmost importance for the government, as they submitted this bill despite the fact that the constitutional court had already abolished a similar provision in 2017 since it "unnecessarily restricts the participants' right to privacy in a discriminatory manner."

Fidesz could finally reject the Istanbul Convention

In 2014, Hungary signed the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, more commonly known as the Istanbul Convention, but the government refused its ratification ever since, for which they were often attacked.

Now, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, a political declaration rushed through Hungarian Parliament in little under 24 hours has put an end to the long-running political debate over the Convention: It states that Hungary already protects the rights of women, but the Parliament refuses to introduce the term "gender" in the legal system (a bill currently before Parliament seeks to remove it from the civil registry as well, making gender recognition for trans people impossible) and argues that recognizing gender-based violence as a form of persecution in asylum procedures (as per Article 60 of the Convention) endangers Hungarian culture, laws, traditions, and national values, therefore, calls on the Government to refuse the ratification of the Convention and to oppose it at all EU forums.

A hostile takeover

In mid-April, a swarm of soldiers, policemen, and lawyers descended upon the offices of Kartonpack Kft., and the manager was told to go home.

The publicly-traded company with both Hungarian and foreign shareholders was drawn under government control supposedly in order to contribute to the coronavirus response effort, but the government immediately fired the entire management, solving a long-running ownership dispute under the cover of the pandemic.

The town that used to have a factory

Similarly to how the Kartonpack-question was settled, the government decided overnight that the Samsung factory in the town of Göd is a "special economic area," and as such, no longer under the jurisdiction of the opposition-led municipality. Due to this, Samsung no longer pays taxes to the city, which means Göd has just lost about a tenth of its budget. The move also prevents the town from objecting to a possible future expansion of the factory.

Another government proposal in the same vein aims to put county assemblies in charge of all developments exceeding 5 billion forints instead of local municipalities. Approximately half of the Hungarian cities are controlled by the opposition since the 2019 municipal elections, while Fidesz retained their majority in the county assemblies that (until now) did not have a particularly important role in the administration. Taxes paid after such large investment projects made up large portions of the budgets of opposition-led cities, however, the proposal would take this income away from these municipalities.

Classifying the country's largest railway development project

The Budapest-Belgrade railway is set to be the single largest railway development project ever completed in Hungary, its total value exceeds 590 billion Forints, though it is a question if it will ever return the investment. The Hungarian state pays 15% of this sum upfront and finances the rest with a loan from China. The Hungarian side of the project will be carried out by the business interests of Lőrinc Mészáros.

An omnibus bill signed by Deputy PM Zsolt Semjén would classify all documents related to the project for the next ten years

Even less state transparency

Early May the government also decided to extend the deadline of public inquiries to 45 days from 15 for the duration of the state of emergency. According to the decree, this was necessary to "prevent, detect, and slow the spread of coronavirus." Minister of the Prime Minister's Office Gergely Gulyás said that the actual motivation behind the decision was that a high number of public inquiries arrived at hospitals where the resources necessary to address them were simply not available.

But this step significantly reduces the transparency of state operation during a pandemic, a time when transparency would be essential.

Starring: Zsolt Semjén

A day after Parliament passed the Coronavirus Act, Semjén submitted an omnibus bill to the Parliament that, besides the classification of the Budapest-Belgrade railway project and gifting state property to circles close to the government, seeks to

  • overwrite the Budapest ban on further constructions in the City Park (Városliget),
  • place ministry supervisors in theatres,
  • disallow legal gender recognition,
  • give 41 properties away to churches.

For a couple of hours, the proposal also would have tied all mayoral emergency powers to the prior approval of local unelected, government-controlled emergency bodies, however, these provisions were scrapped quickly - Direkt36 reported that the idea ruffled feathers even in the top ranks of Fidesz, which begs the question: Just who has the time to think about all of this during a pandemic?

Though the governing coalition often emphasises that a pandemic is no time for petty political battles, one could easily see the political intent behind recent decisions of the Hungarian government. They cut back financial support for political parties by half, which may not particularly affect the governing party that, by now, is deeply interwoven with the state, but it hits smaller and more financially sensitive opposition parties hard, and channelling road taxes into the coronavirus response fund means opposition-led municipalities are losing hundreds of millions of Forints, putting mayors in an impossible situation - a couple of days ago, the mayor of Hódmezővásárhely said that even paying their employees could become problematic.

This article is the translation of the Hungarian original published by Index on 11 May 2020.

(Cover image:  Lawmakers sing the Hungarian Anthem in Parliament on 2 March 2020.  Photo: Zoltán Máthé / MTI)

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