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Hungary’s ‘coronavirus emergency law’ sparks mounting fears of authoritarian power grab

Hungarian PM Orban is given extended powers with a new coronavirus emergency law

Budapest, Hungary – The United Nations, along with numerous NGOs and civil society organizations, have expressed deep concerns regarding Hungary’s coronavirus emergency bill, warning some of its measures threaten the rule of law, the freedom of the press and would “give the government practically unlimited powers”.

Hungary tries to pass emergency powers law to fight coronavirus

In a statement released on Friday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said it was “following with concern developments in Hungary”. The caution came only a few days after Hungary’s government and ruling Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban tried to fast-track a “coronavirus law” that would extent indefinitely the state of emergency – first declared on March 11 – and grant the Prime Minister special powers, including the ability to rule by decree without requiring the Parliament’s approval for an indefinite period of time.

The bill, which members of the ruling Fidesz party said was necessary to fight the spread of the Covid-19 epidemic, would also set prison terms of up to five years for anyone convicted of spreading fake news and misinformation regarding the virus. What is more, people who are considered to have interfered with authorities’ efforts to contain the viral outbreak could be sentenced to up to eight years in jail.

Coronavirus emergency law hands Orban “dictatorial powers”

“Everyone needs to step out of their comfort zone”, Orban declared. “For a time, we have to work differently, act differently and we all have to organize our lives differently”.

But opposition politicians and rights groups consider the measures largely disproportionate, giving the Prime Minister “dictatorial powers for an unlimited period”. “You are asking for an authorization with no time limit, for which there is no example in all of Europe”, reacted opposition MP Timea Szabo. “You want to approve this law… that practically authorizes you to govern without meaningful control and gives you a free hand to do away with even what’s left of the free press”.

Although unable to block the extension of the state of emergency, opposition lawmakers rejected the emergency vote called to vote on these specific proposals, delaying it until this week. Due to its 2/3 majority in Parliament, Fidesz is however largely expected to approve the bill in the coming days. “Hungary is a special case, nowhere else have you the kind of extraordinary measures that Orban is proposing”, commented Milan Nic from the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations.

According to Kim Lan Scheppele from Princeton University, Hungary’s coronavirus law is “written broadly enough to sweep in critics who challenge whether the government is acting sensibly or even whether a measure that the government is taking has any relationship to the virus at all”.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban at the National Assembly on Monday, March 23. Credit: Viktor Orban official Facebook page

“Fighting imaginary demons”?

“We will solve this crisis without you”, answered back Viktor Orban. “I have clearly told the European moaners… that this is not the time for me to argue over all kinds of legal, no doubt exciting, theoretical questions”, he said during an interview on public radio on Friday. “If they can’t help, then at least don’t stop the Hungarians from defending themselves [against the virus]”.

Accusing critics of “fighting imaginary demons”, Justice Minister Judit Varga dismissed accusations of unlimited power grab and said the bill still allowed for some safeguards, claiming that Parliament could revoke the decrees before the end of the state of emergency and that political parties can turn to the Constitution Court for reviews.

Echoing the ruling party’s rhetoric, pro-government media outlets were quick to explicitly accuse the opposition of “siding with the virus” and obstructing the government’s ability to take necessary measures to curb its spread.

Growing concerns over possible power grab by Hungary’s PM Orban

While the Council of Europe cautioned that “even in an emergency, it is necessary to observe the Constitution, ensure parliamentary and judicial scrutiny and right to information”, a number of rights groups, including the International Press Institute, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Human Rights Watch and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union criticized the proposal on the grounds that it would further curtail freedom of the press and dismantle the system of checks-and-balances, giving Orban free rein to rule unhampered.

“Emergency legislation and measures should be strictly temporary, limited to addressing the situation at hand and contain appropriate safeguards”, the UN High Commissioner stated. “We urge the Hungarian government to ensure the measures it takes are in line with its international human rights obligations”.

Apart from undermining the rule of law under the pretence of the current health crisis, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has also been accused by human rights organizations of “weaponizing coronavirus” to stoke xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiment, explicitly blaming immigrants for bringing the virus to Hungary.

You can read an English translation of the main body of the proposed law discussed in this article right here.

Main photo credit: Viktor Orban official Facebook page