Orban proposes changes to Hungary’s electoral law

As Hungarians braced themselves for a new coronavirus lockdown, premier Viktor Orban proposed changes to electoral law and amendments to the country’s constitution narrowing the legal interpretation of gender.

Hours after the Hungarian parliament passed a law imposing a new state of emergency, Mr Orban announced that there was a “50-50 chance” that the Hungarian healthcare system could collapse due to an increasing rise in Covid-19 infections. On Wednesday, Hungary, whose population is 9.8m, had registered almost 4,000 new infections and 100 deaths in the previous 24 hours.

Minutes before midnight on Tuesday, the government proposed changes to electoral law that could make it more difficult for opposition parties to gain ground in the parliament, where the ruling coalition at present has a supermajority. Bills temporarily banning demonstrations, changing court procedures and clarifying the definition of “public funds” were also proposed, alongside an amendment that would “protect children’s right to the gender identity they were born with”. 

“The amendments are aimed at stirring up an ideological debate on issues of identity and culture, while further eroding transparency regarding public money and corruption,” said Zselyke Csaky, of the US-based democracy watchdog Freedom House.

“They show that [Mr Orban’s party] Fidesz is thinking long-term and wants to make sure its hinterland is protected should a change of government occur.”

If the amendments pass, it will be the ninth time the constitution has been changed in nine years, even though a previous Orban government introduced a new constitution after it returned to power in 2010. The timing is being interpreted by some analysts as a snub to the EU, which has clashed with Budapest over the rule of law and migration. Mr Orban has threatened to veto the bloc’s seven-year budget over a new mechanism for cutting off funds to member states believed to be in breach of the rule of law.

The timing of the proposed changes, which are unrelated to fighting the pandemic, reminded many observers of moves the parliament took in late March after declaring a state of emergency that gave Mr Orban a wide range of powers for an indefinite period of time.

The state of emergency was ended in the summer, but other measures introduced earlier this year remain in place. These include classifying information about the country’s largest infrastructure project, a Chinese-built railway from Budapest to the Serbian capital Belgrade, depriving opposition parties of traditional sources of funding and making it impossible to legally change one’s gender. 

The proposed electoral changes would make it harder for the opposition to co-ordinate in the 2022 elections, since they would require every party to put forward candidates in at least 50 constituencies. In October 2019, opposition parties took control of 10 of Hungary’s largest cities, including the capital Budapest, by uniting on a common platform and jointly fielding candidates.

The change could benefit Mr Orban in the short term, said Ms Csaky, though in the longer term it could also “be the final push for complete co-ordination” between opposition parties.

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