By Lili Bayer – POLITICO
While the new legislation remains in place, no elections can be held and Orbán’s government will be able to suspend the enforcement of certain laws
The Hungarian parliament on Monday voted by a two-thirds majority to allow the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree without a set time limit.
While the new legislation remains in place, no elections can be held and Orbán’s government will be able to suspend the enforcement of certain laws. Plus, individuals who publicize what are viewed as untrue or distorted facts — and which could interfere with the protection of the public, or could alarm or agitate a large number of people — now face several years in jail.
In the vote, 137 members of parliament were in favor, 53 against and 9 did not cast a ballot. The new rules can only be lifted with another two-thirds vote of the parliament and a presidential signature.
The legislation has elicited deep concern both among civil rights groups in Hungary and international institutions, with officials from the Council of Europe, United Nations and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe publicly expressing fears about the bill. The legislation also drew criticism from members of the European Parliament.
Critics say that emergency measures to address the coronavirus crisis should be temporary and time-limited to allow for checks and balances. Hungary is currently facing Article 7 proceedings under the EU Treaty, used when a country is considered at risk of breaching the bloc’s core values.
“Civil society, journalists and international and European organizations will have to step up their efforts even more in this new situation to ensure that the potential for grave abuses by government overreach are monitored, documented and responded to,” Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights NGO, said following the passage of the bill.
“It’s now essential that the idea that executive power cannot be unlimited is reinforced by action,” she said. “The health crisis cannot be allowed to turn into a constitutional crisis.”
Asked to respond to critics’ worries, a spokesperson for the Hungarian government said that “we already responded [to] those critics” and directed POLITICO to the Twitter page and blog of Hungarian State Secretary Zoltán Kovács, who has written that “false claims of a power grab in Hungary are just that.”
“Such insinuations are not only incorrect but defamatory, and impede the government’s efforts in slowing down the spread of the coronavirus,” Kovács added. 03/30/2020
Related:The Guardian view on Hungary’s coronavirus law: Orbán’s power grab
The pandemic has allowed one of Europe’s most authoritarian leaders to marginalise critics and political opposition
In functioning democracies, any request by a leader for “emergency powers” is rightly subjected to scrutiny. If granted, a suspension of normal constitutional practice will generally come with a strict time limit attached. Boris Johnson’s coronavirus bill, which gives sweeping new powers to ministers, was passed last week with the proviso that MPs would vote every six months on whether it should be renewed. In France, President Emmanuel Macron’s more wide-ranging and draconian emergency measures have a lifespan of two months.
It should come as little surprise that the situation is different in Hungary. With characteristic ruthlessness, the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has taken the political maxim “never let a crisis go to waste” and run with it. In recent years, he has consolidated his power in office by curbing the independence of Hungary’s courts and media, and restricting the activities of NGOs. This week he will almost certainly acquire dictatorial powers. The Hungarian parliament, dominated by his Fidesz party, is expected to rubber-stamp the “protecting against the coronavirus” law, ushering in an indefinite period of what amounts to one-man rule in an EU member state.
The new law allows Mr Orbán to rule by decree, alone and unchallenged. The prime minister will be able to override all existing legislation. Elections will not take place. Information on government actions will be provided to the speaker of the Hungarian parliament and the leaders of parliamentary groups.
The spreading of “false” information that could lead to social unrest and prevent the “protection of the public” will become a crime punishable by a lengthy prison sentence. Some of Mr Orbán’s cheerleaders in the media have already suggested approvingly that this provision could lead to the arrest of critical journalists.
There are well-grounded fears that these powers will be used to further exert and extend the government’s grip on the institutions of Hungarian civil society, and cast critics of government policy as unpatriotic at a time of national crisis. The decision as to when the current emergency is over will be in the hands of Mr Orbán’s Fidesz MPs. A compliant parliament may eventually choose to make permanent some of the arrangements introduced in the context of a global health crisis. “Emergency” measures introduced in 2016 to restrict the rights of asylum seekers are still in place.
Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic requires harsh measures which curtail individual freedoms. Mr Orbán is not the only autocratic leader to have spotted the chance for a power grab. Azerbaijan’s strongman, Ilham Aliyev, has stepped up the harassment of opposition groups. Israel’s beleaguered PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, used an emergency decree to delay the start of his trial on corruption charges, marginalised parliament and moved to enact unprecedented surveillance measures. It now seems possible that a national unity government will be formed with Mr Netanyahu’s main political rival, Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White party. Ominously, in the United States, Donald Trump has begun to consider himself a “wartime president”.
MEPs have called on the European commission to launch an inquiry into Mr Orbán’s new law. But it will be in place long before that begins. This will be another bad week for Hungarian democracy.
Annexes: Some reactions about Orbán’s dictatorial measure:
Matteo Renzi, PM Italy
I have been dreaming of a “United States of Europe” for years. Precisely for this reason, I have the right, and the duty, to say that after what Orban has done today, the European Union MUST act and make him change his mind. Or, simply, expel Hungary from the Union. (Twitter)
Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, a French Green MEP
“The EU had left it late to respond to decade-old concerns about democratic backsliding and the weakening of the rule of law under the Orbán government. Sadly for Hungary, we have been so far [behind] that I am a bit lost [as to] what we can do now”
Ágnes Vadai, MP with the opposition Democratic Coalition party
“Of course we support the emergency situation. We agree with the government that there’s an emergency and that they have to do everything to combat it. We offered almost everything, but we asked for the time limit”. However, the ruling party had made it clear that it was not willing to back down over the sunset clause, she claimed. “I think from the very beginning, they didn’t want an agreement, because they have used the whole thing for political communication”
Markus Salzmann, World Socialist Web Site
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is using the COVID-19 epidemic to establish dictatorial rule. Following the declaration of a state of emergency on March 11, the country’s parliament is to be effectively abolished with the introduction of an “Emergency Ordinance Act.” The act will allow Orbán to take sole control of all spheres of power.