Hungary’s parliament has voted to allow Prime Minister Viktor Orban to rule by decree indefinitely, in order to combat the coronavirus pandemic, giving the populist leader extra powers to unilaterally enact a series of sweeping measures.
The bill, which has been criticized by international human rights watchdogs, has no specified end date and allows Orban to bypass a number of democratic institutions in his response to the outbreak.
It was approved in parliament on Monday, with 138 votes in favor and 53 against. The bill required a two-thirds majority to pass.
Its provisions go well beyond the various forms of legislation hastily put together by other European Union member states in response to the coronavirus pandemic, dramatically ramping up the strongman leader’s powers.
The suspension of parliament, punishments for journalists if the government believes their coronavirus reporting is not accurate, and heavier penalties for violating quarantine regulations are all made possible by the order. No elections or referendums can be held while it is in place.
Orban said on Hungarian national Kossuth radio last week: “We cannot react quickly if there are debates and lengthy legislative and lawmaking procedures. And in times of crisis and epidemic, the ability to respond rapidly can save lives.
“The Government is not asking for anything extraordinary,” he added. “It is asking for the ability to rapidly enact certain measures. We don’t want to enact measures that the Government has no general right to enact – we simply want to do so swiftly.”
But the bill has alarmed several international groups. Amnesty International warned it gives Orban’s government “carte blanche to restrict human rights.”
“This is not the way to address the very real crisis that has been caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” David Vig, Amnesty International’s Hungary Director, said in a statement. “We need strong safeguards to ensure that any measures to restrict human rights adopted under the state of emergency are strictly necessary and proportional in order to protect public health.”
The order’s draconian punishment of up to five years imprisonment for disseminating “fake news” relating to the pandemic has prompted particular concern from observers.
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It states that “a person who, during the period of a special legal order and in front of a large audience, states or disseminates any untrue fact or any misrepresented true fact that is capable of hindering or preventing the efficiency of protection is guilty of a felony and shall be punished by imprisonment for one to five years.”
Orban had already been on a collision course with the European Union over his country’s hardline immigration policies and for clamping down on democratic institutions – including civic organizations, the media and academic institutions – as he consolidated his power.
The new order is likely to lead to another confrontation with the bloc, with several European politicians – including former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi – calling for a robust response.
“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,” Renzi wrote on Twitter.