Opposition Hungarian lawmakers and former senior officials say the country’s populist, right-wing government may use the broad, executive powers granted to deal with the migrant crisis as a pretext to erode the rule of law and crack down on its political rivals.
On Friday, Hungary again extended a state of emergency, putting six counties along its southern border with Serbia and Croatia – or about one-third of the country – under a series of tough, new laws that have seen authorities militarize the frontier, deploy armed troops and enhance their control over public institutions and roads.
A controversial provision that would have allowed police to search private homes suspected of harboring migrants was dropped at the last minute.
These developments are not surprising, said Attila Ara-Kovacs, a journalist and senior member of Hungary’s opposition Democratic Coalition Party.
“By early February, the government had received information from diplomatic and intelligence sources in Greece and Turkey that the movement of refugees would become a huge problem,” Ara-Kovacs said.
The ruling Fidesz Party then executed “a well-planned PR campaign primarily designed to inflame anti-immigrant sentiment, stifle its domestic opponents and boost [Prime Minister Viktor] Orban’s sagging popularity,” he said.
Hungary’s ambassador to Washington, Reka Szemerkenyi, rejected the allegations.
“The government of Hungary went out of its way to respect the rules governing the Schengen Zone. None of the [emergency measures affect] civil society or the domestic political opposition,” she said.
Not everyone is convinced.
“So, then ideas like searching houses without a warrant come up – once you allow democracy to slide, you don’t know when it will stop,” said Andras Simonyi, who directs the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington D.C.
“Suddenly, you find yourself in a semi-democracy, then a dictatorship,” said Simonyi, who previously served as Hungary’s ambassador to NATO under Orban and to the United States under a Socialist-led government.
Earlier this week, Hungarian riot police fired tear gas and water cannons at hundreds of migrants as they attempted to breach a border crossing with Serbia.
A 175-km fence and two “transit zones” with detention centers were set up to prevent migrants from moving into the country. The government is extending the razor wire barrier to Hungary’s border with Croatia and plans to reinforce the border with Romania as well.