At the moment the Orbán government has two serious challenges. One is its absolute determination to introduce an amendment to the constitution that would authorize the government to unilaterally declare a “state of terror threat” that would lead to draconian limitations of the basic rights of citizens for sixty days and that could be extended indefinitely. Since the governing party, Fidesz-KDNP, doesn’t have the requisite two-thirds majority in parliament to pass a constitutional amendment, it would need the cooperation of the opposition parties. Most are, however, suspicious of the real intent of this amendment.
The other headache for the government is the unexpected outburst of discontent among the nation’s teachers, who are being supported by students and parents. Demonstrations and strikes may be forthcoming, not just by the teachers but also by the railroad workers and bus drivers.
Today Viktor Orbán devoted the lion’s share of his usual Friday morning interview to these two challenges.
In a way, the constitutional amendment issue is the easier of the two to solve. Only a few members of parliament need to be persuaded or bribed to vote with the Fidesz majority and the problem will go away. Dealing with tens of thousands of teachers and other dissatisfied state employees is a much more difficult proposition. So it’s no wonder that Viktor Orbán began his interview with the teachers’ demand to undo the fundamental changes the government has made in the educational system since 2010.
Yet here I would like to talk about the amendment, because from the point of view of Hungarian democracy it is a potential threat to the very structure of governance as well as to human rights. I detailed its key provisions earlier.
So, let’s see where things stand with the amendment, whose passage seems to be of tremendous importance to the government. Its rigid insistence on the exclusive right of the government to declare a state of terror threat is frightening to those who are suspicious of the government’s intentions, especially since the word “terrorism” has been bandied about by government spokesmen without any justification. Yet Viktor Orbán refuses to yield any say in the matter to parliament. In the last few days various Fidesz politicians have declared that the government will submit the proposal unaltered.
At first it looked as if the opposition was united in opposing the measure, but two days ago Ádám Mirkóczki, Jobbik’s spokesman, casually remarked at a press conference that his party would agree to allow the government to declare a state of emergency for three days. After three days, he said, Jobbik would insist on parliamentary approval for its extension by a fourth-fifths majority of parliament.
Mirkóczki’s remarks must have sounded encouraging, so the Orbán government decided to pursue the possibility of shortening the duration of a state of emergency as a promising basis for negotiations. In an interview with Die Presse Gergely Gulyás, the Fidesz politician in charge of shepherding the amendment through parliament, stated that as far as the government is concerned even fifteen days may be enough. Or, if necessary, Jobbik and Fidesz could agree on something between these two lengths of time. Gulyás also revealed in the same interview that the government has most likely been having private conversations with András Schiffer, co-chair of LMP. In fact, he expressed his belief that if there is an agreement it will be between the government and LMP.
So I suspect that the government will have the necessary votes to pass the odious bill, not for a sixty-day duration but for a shorter length of time which, I assume, could be extended if necessary. This is very bad news for Hungarian democracy.
This morning the Hungarian media was in turmoil when MTVA’s Híradó and Magyar Idők, two government publications, came out with the following headline, accompanying their articles on Viktor Orbán’s interview this morning: “Orbán: Preparation is underway for an attack against the Hungarian people.” In no time dozens of publications asserted that Hungary is under a terror threat at this very moment. About an hour later the journalists discovered their mistake. What Orbán actually said was that the “state of terror threat” can be declared “if there is credible information about the preparation of a terror attack.” As Népszabadság rightly pointed out, this is the first time that anyone from the government had “attempted to define the state of terror threat.”
As we know from opposition members of the parliamentary committee on national security, at no time did Terrorelhárítási Központ (TEK), the police, or the intelligence services ever report any terror threat. When asked, they always answered that they have no such information. Now, the MSZP chairman of the committee, Zsolt Molnár, will specifically ask the services whether the terror threat has grown lately or not. If it has, why didn’t they inform the members of the committee?
I think the question is a legitimate one: why does the Orbán government find this amendment so crucial? Rumors are flying in Budapest about possible reasons that have nothing to do with terrorism. One provision currently in the amendment might be of some importance to the government: “the prohibition of organizing events and demonstrations in public spaces.” Nothing could stop the government from declaring a state of terror threat if it was itself challenged by mass demonstrations or strikes. Imposing a curfew could also come in handy in case of disturbances. Closing the borders might be useful. Or contact with foreign journalists in case of trouble. I know some people might say that such a scenario is unlikely. Maybe, but this government is paranoid. So, I wouldn’t put it past Viktor Orbán and his minions to resort to extreme measures if they felt threatened. After all, we just heard that the chairman of the central bank, in addition to his protection by the ordinary police force, just created a new guard and ordered 112 weapons and 200,000 rounds of ammunition.