The Orbán government often presents legislative proposals to parliament when the chamber is empty. This is what happened on the last two occasions, when Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén presented proposals to parliament which had nothing to do with the coronavirus. Another favorite trick is to release new government decrees and regulations late Friday night, when the few newspapers that still exist have already gone to press. No newspapers appear on Sunday, and therefore the news, which is no longer fresh, will appear only on Monday morning.
This is exactly what happened last night when Viktor Orbán signed Government Decree 135/2020 (IV.17.) “about necessary measures in the interest of the stability of the national economy.” This decree’s goal is “the decrease of the negative economic consequences of the pandemic, the avoidance of the loss of still existent jobs, and the creation of new ones.” This will be achieved, according to the decree, by creating “special economic zones” in areas that the government deems to be of national importance, especially those with large factories.
As you will see, the creation of these “special zones” has nothing to do with Viktor Orbán’s concern about the national economy or the protection of jobs. At the heart of the decree is the provision that, from here on, business taxes paid by the larger, mostly foreign-owned companies will go not to the city or town in which they are located but to the county administration (önkormányzat).
These county governments seem to me to be superfluous bodies, good only to create hundreds of jobs for party functionaries. If I remember correctly, in the past few years their abolition has been discussed several times but, perhaps for historical reasons, there were always people who argued for their continuation. The members of these assemblies are chosen by voters who live outside of the eight historical “cities with county rights” and the 12 additional larger cities which were granted rights more recently. The voting is done along party lists. So, while in the 20 cities with county rights only one opposition candidate faced one Fidesz nominee, at the election for county assemblies each small party entered the race on its own. As a result, Fidesz became the majority party in all 19 county assemblies.
With this government decree, the Orbán government, under the guise of the coronavirus pandemic, now has the power to take away business tax revenue from cities and towns whose administration is in the hands of opposition parties. The government didn’t wait long to move into action. Right after the government decree that allows it to establish “special economic zones” one can find Government Decree 136/2020 (IV.17.) “on the establishment of a special economic zone on the territory of the City of Göd.” The town was under Fidesz leadership between 2006 and 2019, when Csaba Balogh (DK), with the support of all the opposition parties, became mayor.
Göd is a town of 23,000 inhabitants situated between Vác and Budapest. In early 2018, Samsung SDI celebrated the completion of its EV battery plant in town, against the wishes of the inhabitants, who were afraid of the environmental and health dangers the plant might pose to the town and its inhabitants. In fact, this dissatisfaction with the way the government ignored the wishes of the people of Göd and the local Fidesz leadership’s complicity in bringing the plant to the town most likely contributed to the government party’s defeat in the last municipal election. The government had no qualms about any potential dangers to the population or the environment, especially since Samsung was making a substantial investment and was promising further expansion of the plant, which even when it first opened was capable of producing 50,000 electric vehicles annually. A year later, at the end of 2019, Samsung announced that the plant would be expanded, with another 1.2 billion euro investment. Samsung became the third largest investor in Hungary.
Given the size and capacity of the plant, the business tax that was collected from Samsung in the past two years constituted a third of the city’s budget. Moreover, several additional pieces of real estate will become part of the “special economic zone,” and certain areas in the outskirts of Göd will be taken away from the city and transferred to the Pest County Assembly with a Fidesz majority, further eating into its tax base. This is what can happen to a town whose citizens vote the “wrong” way.
The other day I had a discussion with a Hungarian journalist who doubted that the “enabling law” was devised for the kinds of nefarious reasons that many Hungarians and even the majority of the European Parliament suspect. He argued that, so far, no decree had been issued that would have justified our accusations. Viktor Orbán, he claimed, didn’t need an enabling law since, because of his two-thirds majority, he pretty much governed by decree in the last ten years. He is not alone in Hungary in believing that Viktor Orbán orchestrated the whole “circus” over the emergency powers to exhibit the opposition’s lack of cooperation, even during a national emergency. Anyone who is interested in this line of argument should read a Hungarian-language article by Bea Bakó, co-editor-in-chief of Azonnali, a magazine owned by Péter Ungár (LMP). If these proponents of the domestic reasons for an enabling law were correct, we would have to think that Viktor Orbán risked worldwide condemnation, which may be very costly to his government, only to score a communication point against the opposition. As an antidote, I recommend an outstanding article titled “Hungary’s ‘coronavirus coup’,” by Zack Beauchamp in VOX.