Budapest, Hungary – Accused of authoritarian moves, Hungary’s prime minister was given a vote of confidence by Europe’s leading human rights organisation, though it said it would closely follow any new legal changes that could undermine democracy.
The Council of Europe voted against fully monitoring Hungary on its EU rights obligations on Tuesday, a move that would have made it the first European Union member to be placed under surveillance for implementing anti-democratic measures.
The United States, the European Union, UN High Commission for Human Rights and several NGOs had expressed concerns that constitutional checks and balances were being threatened in the former communist country by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government.
If Hungary did have to face full-fledged monitoring – similar to what emerging democracies undergo – it would have been a major embarrassment for a country that joined the EU almost 10 years ago.
Yet, some observers say if the country is not disciplined for using constitutional amendments to bolster its power and weaken Hungary’s courts, it could plunge the region into a political crisis.
“There are fears that anybody could be surveilled at any time … When they are setting up mechanics like that, you never know whether they misuse it. There are signs of [an] Orwellian approach.“
– Peter Balazs, former foreign minister
“Just like Greece is a test case for the stability of the euro … Hungary is a test case for the implementation of political norms,” former Hungarian foreign minister Peter Balazs told Al Jazeera.
The human rights watchdog Council of Europe – with representation from 47 countries – is not linked in any way to the EU and has no legislative powers. It voted 135 to 88 against the proposal to put Hungary under surveillance.
“Who won the day today was the people who said, ‘wait a minute, Hungary is not in the … same boat as other countries,’” council spokesman Panos Kakaviatos said after the vote.
The council did note, however, “serious and sustained concerns” about Hungary’s democratic obligations as a member of the EU, and it pledged “to closely follow the situation”.
Hungary’s parliament recently passed a national security law allowing for greater surveillance of government officials, including reading emails, tapping phones, and having their homes bugged.
In an emailed response, government spokesman Ferenc Kumin said the new law complies with NATO requirements and has significant restrictions, such as time limits on how long a person can be monitored. He also said a court or the minister of justice must authorise surveillance of individuals.
Balazs said monitoring some officials – including diplomats, judges and prosecutors – was normal, however, he said the new law takes surveillance to another level.
“There are fears that anybody could be surveilled at any time … When they are setting up mechanics like that, you never know whether they misuse it. There are signs of [an] Orwellian approach.”
|Members of Dialogue for Hungary opposition party hold banners saying: ‘Fear the people, but do not fear Viktor! Vote NO!’ [EPA]|
Orban is also accused of centralising power by putting people close to the government into powerful positions. In March, the government appointed an ally as the head of the central bank, which now plans on taking over the financial markets watchdog.
Critics argue that Hungary’s conservative government was protected from full monitoring by a coalition of right-of-centre political parties across Europe, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party.
Kakaviatos said the results of the Council of Europe’s decision on Hungary on Tuesday showed members of similar political parties voted en bloc.
“It was voted largely along party lines. I mean, you had mainly right-of-centre party groups … they didn’t want a monitoring procedure most of them. It didn’t surprise me,” he said.
Orban’s government was accused of implementing several laws in March considered undemocratic – including limiting powers of the constitutional court – in a recent report by the Council of Europe’s legal experts, known as the Venice Commission.
“Taken together, these measures amount to a threat for constitutional justice and for the supremacy of the basic principles contained in the Fundamental Law of Hungary,” the report said.
“The limitation of the role of the Constitutional Court leads to a risk that it may negatively affect all three pillars of the Council of Europe: the separation of powers as an essential tenet of democracy, the protection of human rights and the rule of law.”
Constitutional court judges now cannot refer to any rulings handed down before 2012, when a new constitution created by the government came into effect. Critics argued this erased years of case law, but the government said judges were being given more freedom.
This is a massive transformation of the entire legal system of a country over three years to reflect political views of the current ruling majority.
The report also stated limits to freedom of speech may hamper criticism of officials, and restrictions on political advertising could disproportionately affect the opposition.
Kumin called the Venice Commission’s report politically motivated.
“The Hungarian Government maintains its position that democracy and the rule of law are stable, and Hungary is committed to European values and norms. Nevertheless, it is also prepared to continue dialogue on the situation in Hungary.”
The former foreign minister Balazs said legal changes – such as the one on political advertisements – could put the legitimacy of the national election in 2014 into question. He accused the government of threatening Hungary’s democracy by implementing laws without proper review.
“There are various features of a totalitarian regime, which is something very new,” Balazs said.
Last week, the UN High Commission for Human Rights backed the Venice Commission’s report, stating the government’s policies are an attack on the constitution.
“This is a massive transformation of the entire legal system of a country over three years to reflect political views of the current ruling majority,” said UNHCR’s regional representative for Europe Jan Jarab.
This month, an EU committee approved a report also criticising some of the Hungarian government’s moves. Among other issues, it highlighted a law allowing authorities to declare living in public spaces illegal, which in effect criminalises homeless people.
But Kumin said the EU report did not include information provided by the government, adding its author – EU parliamentarian Rui Tavares – was from the left side of the political spectrum.
Tavares challenged Kumin’s accusation, saying members from a variety of political parties had supported the report.
“The Hungarian government has been saying this about everything that criticises what has happened in Hungary … I think it’s pretty obvious that is just a way of trying to undermine what’s written inside the report.”
In response to EU criticism, the government said it would abandon two laws: one that would let the government introduce a tax to pay for court decisions against it; and another that allowed for the politically appointed head of the national judicial office to transfer cases between courts.
|Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban [Getty Images]|
Jarab said these measures did not address the main concerns, such as erasing legal precedents before 2012 and undermining the independence of the judiciary.
“I think that these are much bigger issues. These are much, much bigger issues,” said Jarab.
Some observers said they fear the democratic backslide occurring in Hungary could spread throughout the region. Balazs, also a former ambassador to the EU, said if the organisation tolerates Hungary escaping its democratic obligations, then other members could follow.
Tavares raised similar concerns. He said the EU is heading towards a crisis over fundamental human rights being sidelined, which could threaten the existence of the European Union itself.
“If we do not equip ourselves in time for the crisis that is coming … something like the Eurozone crisis will happen. We’ll have the crisis, but not the tools to deal with it.”