Hungary gives government extra powers in face of "terror threat"

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (not pictured) depart after speaking to the media prior to talks at the Chancellery on May 8, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. Photograph:( Getty )

Reuters Budapest Jun 07, 2016, 12.32 PM (IST)

Hungary's parliament today gave the government the right to call for temporary extra powers to combat a possible terrorist attack, including greater public surveillance and wider use of the army, thereby sparking protests from the opposition.

Opposition parties said the sweeping new powers could be misused by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has been under attack for weakening checks and balances in the constitution, to seize more power.

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union said there was no justification for the government to be granted the extra powers.

Under a constitutional amendment approved by parliament, the government will have the right to invoke an extraordinary status quo called "terror threat situation" if it sees a threat of attack.

"At the Government's initiative Parliament may declare a terror threat situation for a limited period of time in case there is a terror attack or a clear and present danger of a terror attack," the amendment says.

With such mandate the government would be allowed to suspend existing laws and assume extra powers for a period of up to 15 days.

These extra powers include increased surveillance of state facilities and the use of the military within national borders - which is normally not allowed - if police or national security agencies were deemed unable to respond to the threat.

"The constitutional rules governing extraordinary status quo (cover) classic interstate challenges. New types of security threats do not fit completely into this system," the amendment, which was supported by Orban's ruling Fidesz party and the far-right Jobbik--the Hungarian radical nationalist political party, said.

Parliament today also passed a series of legal amendments to existing laws that enable closer scrutiny of communications and boost secret services with a new agency.

Orban, who is on a second term in power, has sometimes found himself at odds with mainstream European Union policy by taking a tough line on immigration into Europe.

Mate Szabo of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union said the government should not need an extraordinary status quo to be more efficient against terror attacks.

"The government has not been able to prove the need for such an extraordinary constitutional status quo," Szabo said. "It has just enabled itself to be more efficient with the new law."

Leftist opposition MP Agnes Vadai said the government was seeking unjustified powers for an ill-defined, hypothetical situation.

The amendment was significantly softer than an earlier version which would have allowed a longer period for the emergency situation and would have limited the control of parliament. These measures were largely removed in subsequent amendments.