Hungary’s far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban gained sweeping powers last week when the country’s parliament passed emergency coronavirus measures that allow him to effectively rule by decree, suspend by-elections and grant authorities the ability to jail people for spreading disinformation. There is no time limit on when these new powers end.
Just a week later, rights groups say Orban has already begun using these new powers to assert control. As countries implement extraordinary measures to stem the spread of coronavirus, Hungary and other governments have used the moment to their political advantage ― bringing concern over how the rule of law can survive a pandemic.
The measures passed last week, when Orban’s Fidesz party pushed them through parliament, caused immediate backlash from rights groups, European Union officials and journalists who warned that the government would use its new abilities to consolidate power and further erode Hungary’s flagging democracy. Some critics demanded action from the EU and alleged that Orban had pushed the country into autocratic rule.
“Viktor Orban has completed his project of killing democracy and the rule of law in Hungary,” said Sophie In’t Veld, a Dutch liberal member of European Parliament involved in monitoring rule of law.
Orban, a canny politician adept at subtly rewriting laws and passing legislation that benefits his party, hasn’t yet used the measures to bluntly attack enemies or assert absolute rule. But many of his decrees have little to do with fighting coronavirus and more to do with shoring up his party’s rule and undermining political opponents.
The government has so far introduced plans to classify the details of a multibillion dollar railway project with China and will take away half of the state funding given to political parties ― a move that critics say will seriously harm many opposition groups that rely on the money to operate. Another plan, cooked up by Orban’s deputy but eventually abandoned as being unworkable, was to take decision-making powers away from city mayors, who in many cities including Budapest are from opposition parties.
“In light of these first decrees, it seems like Prime Minister Orban will want to use the opportunity afforded by his new rule-by-decree powers to speed up power-grabbing,” Marta Pardavi, co-founder of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee rights group, told HuffPost.
Meanwhile, the measures have sent a chill among Hungary’s independent journalists amid fears of government reprisal for reporting critically on Orban’s response to the pandemic. Journalists have seen a rise in online threats from commenters, worried about potential legal action against them and led to concerns about self-censorship, The Guardian reported. Hungary’s media has been under tremendous pressure from Orban’s government for years, which has built up a swath of pro-government outlets that parrot the ruling party line.
The “disinformation” law putting pressure on journalists has also led to concern that it will be difficult to accurately assess the scope of Hungary’s coronavirus outbreak, as hospitals and doctors are hesitant to speak with the press. World Health Organization officials believe that Hungary’s government data is unreliable and asserted that the outbreak in the country is more serious than government officials have claimed, according to a secret document from a foreign diplomat obtained by The New York Times. A World Health Organization official named in the document denied making those assessments when contacted by the Times.
Along with its decrees around coronavirus, Orban has also advanced other legislation aimed at his common targets. The government filed an omnibus bill last week that would ban the legal recognition of transgender people and make a record of “sex at birth” ― defined as “biological sex based on primary sex characteristics and chromosomes” ― which would be unchangeable. Rights groups and members of European Parliament condemned the bill as an attack on trans rights and European values.
“Transgender persons have the right to legal recognition of their gender based on self-determination. This is an essential step to ensure respect for their human rights in all areas of life,” Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, said in a statement.
The anti-trans bill will face a normal process of debate and vote in parliament, rather than being passed by decree using Orban’s new powers, but rights groups say its timing is a way of pushing it through at a time when the country and European Union is focused elsewhere.
The only check on Orban’s ability to rule by decree is Hungary’s constitutional court, but critics say that the court has essentially been hollowed out and packed with the ruling party’s allies in recent years as judicial independence wanes. In parliament, the ruling Fidesz party has a majority that allows it to largely govern without the agreement of other parties and its members vote in lockstep with whatever Orban supports.