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The Czech and Hungarian fondness for emergency powers

William Nattrass is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Prague.  

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has caused another political firestorm, announcing a state of emergency in his country over the war in Ukraine, which he said is “putting our physical security at risk and threatening the energy and financial security of our economy and families.”  

But while this state of war emergency has provoked strong reactions, Hungary isn’t the only country relying on sweeping additional powers. A state of emergency declared in the Czech Republic in early March because of the Ukrainian refugee crisis has also just been extended until at least the end of June. 

And both countries’ extended reliance on such sweeping powers has not only become increasingly puzzling but is a massive risk for their governments. 

The day after imposing Hungary’s war emergency, Orbán introduced a series of austerity measures, requiring banks, insurers, energy companies and other large enterprises to pay a new tax on extra profit made from increased interest rates and higher prices. These additional revenues are intended to keep consumer costs down and provide additional funding for the Hungarian army. 

Objections may be made to the move, but its logic is straightforward. Many Hungarians would feel disgruntled to see banks and multinationals pocketing huge profits due to turbulent circumstances, while families and small businesses struggle to make ends meet.  

But whether or not Orbán’s economic interventions are justified, it’s unclear why they necessitated the use of emergency powers. His Fidesz party’s two-thirds parliamentary majority would have given him ample scope to impose tax reforms and other economic measures just by using standard political procedures.   

Interestingly, the day after Hungary announced its new levy, the leader of the Czech opposition Andrej Babiš similarly demanded that dividends from the Czech Republic’s largest energy company, which he said is “drowning in profit,” be distributed to the country’s small businesses. 

When I asked about the similarity with Hungary, the Czech Interior Ministry insisted its emergency powers are different, as they do not put the country on a war footing. Emergency powers have allowed the government “to instruct regions and central state authorities to provide and allocate necessary accommodation capacities for refugees,” the ministry said. They have also been used to ensure rapid processing of refugee visa applications.  

The Czech ministry’s eagerness to distance itself from Hungary illustrates another key difference. While the Czech government’s ability to enact drastic change is limited by the constraints of coalition politics, Fidesz’s huge parliamentary majority gives Orbán much greater individual power.   

Still, both the Hungarian and Czech states of emergency allow these governments to suspend basic rights and laws. In Hungary, the government can “suspend the application of certain laws, derogate from legal provisions and take other extraordinary measures in order to protect life, health, personal property, legal security and the stability of the national economy.”  

In their decisions, both governments emphasize the speed of action granted to them by their emergency powers. Czech officials tell me the state of emergency allows “more flexible and faster coordination of the activities of the authorities.” And while justifying the new war emergency, Hungary’s government spokesperson Zoltán Kovács pointed out the “swiftness granted by the special legal order” during the pandemic.   

Yet these governments are now focused on processing a refugee wave and protecting the economy — not containing a rapidly spreading virus. It’s no longer the case that skipping through the hours normally spent in debate could actually save lives.   

In this new context, the Czech opposition thinks the government’s continued use of emergency powers is “unbelievable arrogance.”   

Such arrogance might still be acceptable, however, if the situation brought clear benefits in dealing with the crisis. But Prague City Hall told me the Czech capital has lacked accommodation for refugees “for a long time,” and if the government can’t speed up the reallocation of refugees to other parts of the country, the city may have to simply stop processing new arrivals. 

The administrative inefficiencies are epitomized by the dire situation at Prague’s main train station, where hundreds of Roma refugees from Ukraine are sleeping rough and relying on aid from volunteers, unable to secure visas or state-provided accommodation.  

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Vít Rakušan says the number of Ukrainian refugees has stabilized, as many of them are now returning home, which begs the question: If the acute stage of the crisis is over, why have emergency powers been prolonged for another month?   

The situation is even more bizarre in Hungary, where a state of emergency is in place to counter an economic catastrophe that hasn’t even materialized yet.  

The two cases indicate a disturbing eagerness from both governments to adopt emergency powers in any circumstances which exert — or are expected to exert — significant strain on resources and public infrastructure. But far from justifying the suspension of standard procedures, such situations make the checks and balances of a functioning democratic society more important than ever.   

Sidelining debate and due process isn’t a path to more effective governance — it’s a surefire way of stoking resentment. Negativity toward refugees and mistrust of politicians will only get worse if the public faces hardship amid a lack of fair political scrutiny. 

In getting too comfortable with the use of their emergency powers, leaders in Central Europe are playing with fire.

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