Toward a police state: the government’s latest effort at limiting democratic freedoms

Today I’m dealing with two interconnected issues: (1) the anti-terrorist surveillance legislation, which was dealt a serious blow yesterday in Strasbourg and (2) the government’s proposal for a constitutional amendment that would introduce a new category of emergencies that could be declared in case of a “situation created by a terrorist threat” (terrorveszélyhelyzet).

You may recall Professor Kim Lane Scheppele’s article titled “The New Hungarian Secret Police,” which appeared on Paul Krugman’s blog in The New York Times on April 19, 2012. In this article Scheppele listed the duties of TEK (Anti-Terror Center), which in her opinion had become Viktor Orbán’s secret service.

TEK now has the legal power to secretly enter and search homes, engage in secret wiretapping, make audio and video recordings of people without their knowledge, secretly search mail and packages, and surreptitiously confiscate electronic data (for example, the content of computers and email). The searches never have to be disclosed to the person who is the target of the search – or to anyone else for that matter. In fact, as national security information, it may not be disclosed to anyone. There are no legal limits on how long this data can be kept.

She ended her article by stating that “it seems increasingly likely that the Hungarian government is heading toward the creation of a police state.”

It was not only Professor Scheppele who found the law governing the activities of TEK frightening but also two Hungarian lawyers–Máté Szabó and Beatrix Vissy–who work for a non-governmental watchdog organization, Eötvös Károly Közpolitikai Intézet. A few months after the publication of Kim Scheppele’s article they filed a constitutional complaint, arguing that these sweeping prerogatives infringed their right to privacy. The Hungarian Constitutional Court dismissed the majority of their arguments. At that point Szabó and Vissy turned to the Court of Human Rights, which yesterday sided with them. The decision stated that the law is so broad that it could be used against “virtually anyone,” trampling Hungarians’ right to privacy. Therefore, the court concluded that the law violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Hungary has three months to ask for the case to be revisited, but the Court doesn’t have to oblige. Considering that it was a unanimous decision, I don’t think there will ever be a second hearing of the case. This is an important case, with broad implications across Europe.

On the same day, on January 12, István Simicskó, the recently appointed minister of defense, called for a “five-party” discussion on security measures that would involve the use of the army in the case of a “terror threat.” Currently there are three situations in which the government can take varying degrees of extraordinary measures: (1) “emergency conditions” (veszélyhelyzet); (2) “preventive defense conditions” (megelőző védelmi helyzet); and (3) a “full state of emergency” (rendkivüli állapot). The government is seeking a fourth emergency category, somewhere between “preventive defense conditions” and “full state of emergency.” It would be called a “state of terror threat” (terrorveszélyhelyzet). To introduce this new category the government needs a two-thirds majority since its enactment requires an amendment to the constitution.

Of the five parties that have their own delegations in parliament only four showed up: Fidesz, the Christian Democrats, Jobbik, and LMP. MSZP’s chairman, József Tóbiás, boycotted the meeting because the party considered the proposed law a government ruse that could expand Viktor Orbán’s already sweeping powers.

Origo published the details of the proposed new category yesterday afternoon. Here are the most important provisions that emerged from this first report.

In the case of a terror threat the army can be used if “the employment of police and the national security forces is insufficient.” The proposal doesn’t specify what “insufficient” means. But that is not the only term that is not explained. It is not at all clear what the government means by “danger of terror.” In Origo’s understanding “one or two unrelated terror threats” wouldn’t precipitate the declaration of a state of emergency, the highest level of extraordinary measures. That’s why the government wants to create a new category of “state of terror threat.”

Let’s stop here for a minute. If I understand it correctly, a single terror threat, which may turn out to come from a crackpot, might warrant the declaration of a state of terror threat. Moreover, terrorism, as defined by the Hungarian government, might not be what most of the world understands it to be. András Jámbor of recalled that in the last two years government politicians used the word “terrorism” to describe a range of activities, including nonviolent political protest. TEK talked about terrorism in connection with two pensioners who were alleged to be plotting to assassinate Viktor Orbán and two youngsters who turned out to be history buffs collecting World War II weapons. Politicians talked about terrorism at the Serb-Hungarian border when migrants threw rocks at Hungarian policemen. The word “terrorism” was used when some of the demonstrators against the internet tax threw old PCs at the headquarters of Fidesz. And it was considered to be terrorism when two activists who protested against the extension of the Paks Nuclear Plant climbed up to the balcony of Sándor Palota to remove the Hungarian and EU flags. In this light, what follows is even more frightening.

The arrow points to Hungary which is a happy island of low terror threat

The arrow points to Hungary, a happy island with a low terror threat

Here are the most important provisions of the proposed law: the government could limit and influence media content; it could limit the use of gasoline and other products; it could introduce measures contrary to international agreements at the borders; it could control the internet and the postal service; it could order curfews and forbid larger gatherings; it could decide on the expulsion of individuals. These were the points Origo included in its article. But perhaps the most important provision is that the government under a “state of terror threat” would govern by decree.

Here I would like to quote myself when I wrote about László Kövér’s idea from 2013 when the president of the parliament suggested “governance by decree.” This is what he had to say: “I would find it normal, quite independently from what kind of governments we will have in the next few years, if parliament would lay claim only to the creation of the most fundamental legal guarantees and would otherwise hand over its mandate to the government for the next four years.” When pressed, he explained that this would mean a kind of governing by decree. At that time I wrote:

I doubt that Kövér learned much about modern Germany while dabbling in history. Otherwise he might have been more cautious in advocating governance by decree. It was in March 1933 that an amendment to the Weimar Constitution took effect which gave power to Chancellor Adolf Hitler to enact laws without the involvement of the Reichstag. The act stated that this arrangement was to last four years unless renewed, which subsequently happened twice. This so-called Enabling Act (Ermächtigungesetz) gave Hitler plenary powers and made him the dictator of Germany…. The resemblance between the German Enabling Act and what Kövér proposed in this interview was first picked up by János Avar and seconded by György Bolgár on ATV’s UjságíróKlub last night. It has since been repeated by many bloggers. It is one of the most frightening suggestions I have heard in the longest time.

András Jámbor also pointed out a few more provisions of the proposed constitutional change. “The government could close newspaper offices; it could take over the assets of NGOs; and it could forbid any association with foreigners.”

Jobbik wholeheartedly supports the proposal, and thus there is no question that it will easily pass. LMP was somewhat critical, but Schiffer’s greatest objection was that the declaration of a state of terror threat, as it stands now, depends only on the will of the government. Parliament has no say in the matter. But we could ask from András Schiffer: “What difference would parliament’s participation in the process make under the present circumstances?” He considers the terror threat a serious matter, but he wouldn’t support provisions that limit the movement of people, postal and internet traffic, freedom of assembly, or the entry of foreigners into the country.

MSZP, as I mentioned at the beginning of the post, didn’t attend the meeting, but the socialist leadership can’t decide what the party objects to or what it wants. Initially, József Tóbiás, the party chairman, explained his refusal to attend by charging that the bill was nothing more than an attempt to expand the powers of Viktor Orbán. The next day, however, Zsolt Molnár declared that MSZP is ready to support a constitutional amendment. Tóbiás’s absence only indicated that one cannot put forth a proposal in the last minute. They are ready to continue to negotiate with the other four parties.

I couldn’t find any reactions from the two small parties, Együtt (Together) and PB (Dialogue). DK, however, announced today that it considers the proposal a dangerous power grab with possibly fatal consequences. “Only Viktor Orbán’s imagination would limit what the government could do under a ‘state of terror threat.’” Anyone who assists the government in this endeavor is helping to destroy the last pillars of democracy. That’s why DK finds MSZP’s decision to take part in this process unacceptable.

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January 13, 2016 9:33 pm

That past ‘ Enabling Act ‘ …

Prof Balogh: ‘It is one of the most frightening suggestions I have heard in a long time’. Indeed chilling in context of the future of the Hungarian state.

A description on Hitler’s ascension to the heaven of the German Chancellorship hits home I think to what occurred with German parliamentary democracy where all legislative authority went over completely to Hitler’s cabinet. Arbitrary rule replaced government by law and one historian noted that and other repressive measures combined to give the term that Hitler engaged in as ‘coup d’ etat by installments’. And he had helpers fittingly in a Parliament he controlled.

Under the current circumstances it’s hard not to think ‘coup d’ etats do happen in Hungary …….right under everybody’s eyes and it’s going on right now.

January 14, 2016 12:56 am

Orban is becoming the fascist that Vona can only dream of being.

January 14, 2016 2:59 am

The Eu seems to be quick to respond to the alarming situation in Poland, where the same dismantling of a democracy is begining to happen under their new government with help and advice from Orbán, an expert on how to establish a dictatorship.

Despite a few lame threats nd endless declarations of “being alarmed”, the EU seems to do nothing viz a viz Hungary. Hungary might be a much smaller country geographically than Poland, but the clever machinations of a corrupted mind should not be underestimated. Orbán is already reaping the benefits of his “advice” in Poland, and his influence will merely grow if Hungary is not ousted from the EU altogether.

As the saying goes- “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
Orbán’s bid for absolute power will corrupt beyond Hungary, with terrifying consequences.

January 14, 2016 3:58 am

It’s almost shocking to see how quick the European Commission was to react to the attitude of Poland’s new government when, 5 years later, they’re still being very soft on Orbán. Why such a difference of treatment? Is it EPP’s support/need for FIDESZ or did they realize they had to act right from the start, avoiding the mistake they made with being late to follow Hungary’s move away from democratic rights?

January 14, 2016 10:43 am

The Poles will have an easy defence: “Why do you prosecute us when you didn’t prosecute the Hungarians who did the same before us? We will not accept any punishment before you have punished the Hungarians”.

January 14, 2016 5:27 pm

And as far Poland goes I’d suggest BBC watchers should watch TVP1 and keep an eye on it. I read Jacek Kurski, deputy culture minister, ‘runs’ that most watched station in the country and wants to use the BBC as a model. He says, ‘As the public television, we will do everything to rebuild national unity and aim for grand noble goals’. Just curious now on the er…. ‘programming’.

January 15, 2016 10:00 am
Simple: Review the history. The EU commission reviewed Hungarian issues and when they made their complaints known, Hungary…. i.e. Orban, then changed the law. Orban is a political opportunist (i.e. Orban only cares about Orban). He may be as slimy as a dead fish in still water after a week but he can read the crowd and turn 180 degrees if it suits his personal agenda. That is, he talks large to the Hungarian population (who are trapped by their language, so only know what is feed them by State owned media), but he is also one who knows where his (fiscal) bread is buttered and acts accordingly (i.e. knows where the money comes from — currently from the EU, but once oil prices increase I suspect he will turn again toward Russia). Really an internal slippery fish. The problem is, other political operatives (i.e. Poland) may not have Orban’s capacity to change with how the wind blows (The Poles really hate Russia, so they do not have the fiscal “out” that Orban can tap). So even if Orban is the “bad apple” in the stinking barrel for only a short time, he may be the only one to escape… Read more »
January 14, 2016 3:03 am

London Calling!

It is when so-called ‘Security’ legislation is put before parliament that arguably the opposition must be at its most vigilant.

Otherwise the more authoritarian administrations can get away with murder.

Some powers bulldozed through a somnolent, obsequious parliament make government easy and enables the administration to govern without the inconvenience of parliamentary debate – an attitude expressed by Kövér – a not-so-closet fascist.

And often with concomitant unintended consequences.

This is recognised in the English parliament where ‘security’ is fought every step of the way – and still we seem to make a right havers of it.

With Hungary’s somnolent obsequious, non-contestested, legislation factory – with no effective opposition – the people of Hungary are vulnerable.

Very vulnerable without even the EU intervening to defend their valueless values.

The vulnerable people vote for their dear leader.

They should be ejected from the EU.

And when Turkey has burned through the wasted €3billion ‘bribe’, they should be refused entry. And Poland should be preparing to leave too.

That just leaves Britain.

Here comes Brexit.

And RIP the EU.



January 14, 2016 4:14 am
Just a very theoretic question. We have a government that is completely entrenched via various formally legal means, its loyalists are absolutely everywhere. For example Peter Polt, the notorious head of the prosecution cannot even be removed after his mandate expires after 9 years in office (in 2019) as long as 2/3s of the Parliament cannot agree on the new chief prosecutor (ie. with 1/3 Fidesz-Jobbik can block the appointment of a new chief for ever). The Fidesz power structure controls and uses for its purposes the intelligence agencies, the prosecution, the constitutional courts, the general courts perhaps to a lesser extent. It controls most of the media, both state-owned and private. It can amend the election laws, it has unlimited funds to finance any election campaigns, it owns vast amounts of economic assets which are being used to maintain its power especially in rural areas, it has all the election and census data on the population almost down to individual voters – when a new opposition party can hardly even get registered (it takes something 6 months and constant legal wrangling to get a party registered). And these are just examples, the situation is actually much worse in practice.… Read more »
January 14, 2016 6:00 am

Hear, hear. And the question is not theoretical at all.
I have been ringing my little alarm bell since 2007 and frantically so since 2010.
I know Orban had always been a budding fascist, or dictator if you prefer. He’s being lying and cheating all his life, pretty obviously so since 1995.
In his biggest achievement he hoodwinked the injured souls and the gullible, cheap Hungarian voters culminating in the 2010 election victory. It has been an incremental coup d’etat since.
By now we have a fascist (light) state here which will harden as may be “necessary”. The opposition has to continue fighting however, because the regime’s tricks and repressions will open the many a fool’s eyes and this may eventually create a situation similar to that of 1989 where nobody cared for anything , but to vote the communists out.

January 14, 2016 8:25 am

You are absolutely right Observer, and one of the things which I find baffling in supposedly intellignet people is the constant remark that the reason for Fidesz being so powerful is because there is no opposition?! There is most certainly an opposition, but it is powerless, for the reasons you have pointed out. What Orbán is now working on within his police state, in effect, is to make it more or less illegal to have an opposition party, or any kind of opposition.

If the EU were to take action and oust Hungary, I expect that Orbán’s adherents (not friends, because he has none, only partners in crime) would no doubt get rid of him, since banishment from the EU would spell the end of the gravy train. We need firm action from the EU, before the rot spreads further into Europe.

January 14, 2016 9:55 am
“With Hungary’s somnolent obsequious, non-contestested, legislation factory – with no effective opposition – the people of Hungary are vulnerable.” Fidesz is so powerful, not only because it has tuned into the Hungarian (nationalistic) psyche, but also because the opposition is not effective. (This is also amplified by Orban’s seige mentality and saviour status). The churning legislation machine is another factor – even if the opposition set out to oppose a measure they don’t have time to analyse it – an example? Gy voting for a recent bill and then attempting to reverse it. Very often when an opposition is ineffective then the public lobby hard – march, protest, rally – so in some democracies the public are the effective opposition and more effective sometimes than the official opposition. Not in Hungary. Whilst many claim on here that Orban’s ‘majority’ is based ‘only’ on about 33% of the vote – I think they are wrong. Orban’s majority is made up of the 33% plus the so-called undecided non-voters of about 40%. Why? Because Hungarians don’t understand democracy and its workings and requirements. Coming from a centralist, communist system – and still in transition – they know full well the effect of… Read more »
January 14, 2016 4:12 pm


And as we know, while “nobody cared for anything , but to vote the communists out” Orbán himself : “(You know, I) didn’t fought against the dictatorship in the ‘80s. I did fought against those who actually made the dictatorship to happen..” (

Admirable talent otherwise to repaint the very same old crap time and again and sell as the latest model of — whatever, really.

January 14, 2016 8:03 am

“For example Peter Polt, the notorious head of the prosecution cannot even be removed after his mandate expires after 9 years in office (in 2019) as long as 2/3s of the Parliament cannot agree on the new chief prosecutor (ie. with 1/3 Fidesz-Jobbik can block the appointment of a new chief for ever).”

Don’t worry about this laughable legal fiction.
Peter Polt will remove himself from Hungary as soon as he feels the ground burning under his feet.

January 14, 2016 8:40 am

You know I just don’t think Hungary learned anything about its past. Giving power to the wrong individuals ….simply a recipe for absolute disaster. Hungary has made a a very bad mistake with Orban and Fidesz. One day Hungary will wake up to see democracy eased out like a very ill patient to intensive care.

January 15, 2016 7:26 am

First time ever I became aware a like/dislike score box. It was under my comment on January 14, 2016 8:03 am. I had scored -1. It made me happy because it told me that somebody had got upset by my comment which was my intention. Now I cannot resist the temptation to rub some salt into the inarticulate commenters wound. I will reiterate and rephrase my point.

The Fidesz government does not respect the terms of employment contracts when they fire somebody. They do not respect commercial contracts when they want to harass somebody. They do not respect any paper they have adorned with ther own signature if it happens to be inconveniet. Nevertheless they seem to believe that the paper work their ”smart lawyers” have done to secure the tenure of their own appointees for half eternity will be respected by future governments. Of course it will not. The whole edifice void of legal sense will tumble to the ground and become dust as soon as the Orban spell is broken.

January 15, 2016 7:51 am

Jean P your comments are always readable and often give an unexpected oblique which makes one think – like many on here. And when I don’t mis-read you! (Remember?)

Like the Polt observation – he will run on redemption day.

And your contributions are always pithy and short.

Unlike others on here……….including me, of course.

Keep calm and keep commenting!

I have voted you back up!

January 14, 2016 5:47 am
I agree with those who have indicated that the Hungarian Parliament must act to curb the powers of the executive in relation to this legislation. But as Eva has indicated that is unlikely. Following the US experience with President Nixon we here in the USA passed the National Emergencies Act to stop open-ended states of national emergency and formalize the power of Congress to provide certain checks and balances on the emergency powers of the President. The Act of Congress imposes certain “procedural formalities” on the President when invoking such powers. The perceived need for the law arose from the scope and number of laws granting special powers to the President in times of national emergency. This law was supported by both the right and left here in the USA and even the military supported it. We here have a deep fear of executive power, but none the less the United States has been operating for 14 years under a national state of emergency that complies with the Act. See I have absolutely no confidence that the European Court of Human Rights decision cited by Eva will be enforced on Hungary. The court is not the same as the… Read more »
January 14, 2016 7:10 am

This is just a brief comment on the translation of one Hungarian word by Éva, whose renderings into English of the often contorted and constantly evolving language of current Hungarian political discourse are usually excellent. In translating
“Gyakorlatilag csak Orbán Viktor fantáziája szabhat határt annak, hogy mit tehet meg a kormány”
it is wrong to say “VO’s fantasy” — the right word is “imagination”. There is an important difference.

January 14, 2016 7:23 am

You’re probably right here – fantáziá seems to correspond to the German Fantasie/Phantasie which corresponds to imagination.

January 14, 2016 8:39 am

Desire to emigrate from Hungary.

67% of high school students (!)
21% of university graduates
15% of the entire population

January 14, 2016 9:00 am
From having talked to several friends, neighbours and acquaintances I’d say that the numbers might even be higher, among younger people at least! Some I know made it to Switzerland – even if they can’t work in their profession but have “low jobs” they make much more money and they are happy! Others tried, but had to return because of homesickness … And others still (most with an academic background or students) were persuaded that it might be better to get a real job first in Hungary – but they’re still thinking about leaving if there is a chance in their field. Others (construction workers, carpenters etc) just go on projects in Austria for a month or so because their knowledge of German is not good enough and they’re too old to start again … And then there are uncountable numbers of people who work the main season in DACH every summer and/or winter. A funny story from our village to illustrate this: We walked the dog and when it said hello to one of the neighbour dogs a girl came to the fence which we hadn’t seen before and we talked to her in Hungarian – suddenly she switched… Read more »
January 14, 2016 11:05 am

So those remain who like Orban and the situation, they self-select.

This is the best for Orban his potential opponents leave while he is pouring tens of billions on ethnic Hungarian political machineries to purchase their votes.

January 14, 2016 10:42 am

From an article on why Britain might or might not be better out of the EU – with a clear, if indirect reference to Hungary:
“Whether we can share a judicial union – with an automatic EU arrest warrant on the word of a magistrate, who may or may not be a scoundrel – with three or four member countries under authoritarian control, either led by pocket-Putins, or without a safe rule of law and a free press, and in two cases essentially mafia states.”

Article here

January 14, 2016 1:27 pm


I agree with the journalist: who in his right mind would want to extend
Hungary’s unprincipled use of the law into the far reaches of the EU?

Hungary cannot be trusted. Haven’t they questioned every EU criticism by claiming that their laws had been misinterpreted or mis-translated? Shameful.

No rule of law.
No principles.
No values.

Let Hungary join Russia.

January 14, 2016 4:26 pm

Cult of personality. [what a jerk of a personality…]

From the new textbook for third graders.

Poem, titled “The winner” and illustrated by the photo of a 9-year old soccer player with the “Felcsut” logo on his shirt. [Felcsut is Orban’s home village]

January 14, 2016 5:24 pm

From stanza 3: “…ha o nyeri, az engemet zavar.” (If he wins, I’ll be upset.)

Way to go, Hungaricoes! How to teach good sportsmanship, Hungarian style…

Hajra Magyarok!

January 14, 2016 5:36 pm

“In tomorrow’s class, we’ll having shooting handguns.
“On Saturday, how to pick out jews.
“On Sunday, we’ll have a special class on book-burning!”

The Hungarian curriculum, Kover/Orban style.

January 15, 2016 11:57 am
Don’t get to see much Magyar poetry on sports no less. Fascinating to see sports poetry for the kids! I guess they do that over there. Here? Are you kidding? Looks to me the verse is passing along ‘tips’ that winners should emulate. Hey it’s tough out there on the pitch! Got to be tough they say. But if I could bring up another point. Hungary has turned away many potential migrants, refugees , etc etc to the country. And these are people who have in themselves the drive and will to succeed. I’d suggest that in a way Hungary has turned away some potential and future sports stars that might have the makings of Messi or Ronaldo types. Players who perhaps are even arguably better at very young ages. Players who arguably could take Magyar foci to another level. So in that way I find Hungary pretty short-sighted there by not giving opportunities to those who could have a positive effect on the country’s goals in football. But it looks like it will not happen since Hungary just seems only to want real ‘Hungarians’ in the country mitigating exposure to ‘foreigners’ who can contribute. In sports psychology it’s one… Read more »
January 15, 2016 10:29 am

The Orban kind of people – “a semi Asian derivate who understand only force” as he spoke of them. Disgusting carpetbeggars.