Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban gained sweeping powers on Monday after the country’s Parliament passed an emergency coronavirus bill that effectively lets the far-right leader rule by decree.
The dramatic new measures include declaring a state of emergency with no time limit, empowering the government to jail citizens for “disinformation” and suspending elections.
Orban’s new powers, which passed with the help of his party’s two-thirds majority in Parliament, deeply concern human rights groups and opposition members who fear the prime minister could use them to threaten the rule of law and democracy.
Hungary is also a potential bellwether for how other far-right leaders could use the global pandemic to consolidate power at a time when countries are more willing to pass extraordinary measures to stem the outbreak. Human rights groups and democracy watchdogs are increasingly worried that governments could make power grabs during the crisis.
Israel has used emergency powers to authorize tracking people’s cell phones, and the U.S. Department of Justice asked for the ability to detain people indefinitely without trial ― a request decried by both side of the nation’s political spectrum. Countries including the Philippines, Jordan and Thailand have all passed emergency measures that allow strict controls over information and civil liberties.
In Hungary, Orban’s history of vilifying political opponents, journalists and civil society groups makes the measures against disinformation especially concerning. The bill makes intentionally spreading false news that could hinder efforts against coronavirus punishable by up to five years in prison ― but critics say Orban’s past crackdowns on the free press and the legislation’s vague language means it could send a chill to journalists reporting on the government’s actions.
“The biggest threat now is how the Orban government will use this unlimited power. Its track record has shown that it does not have an appetite for constitutional checks and balances.” said Marta Pardavi, co-chair of The Hungarian Helsinki Committee human rights organization.
Orban and his Fidesz party have defended the measures as a necessary step to combating the outbreak, framing opposition parties as unwilling to support that cause.
But European Union officials and members of Hungary’s opposition condemned the new measures as part of Orban’s continued attack on democratic principles. Opposition parties had pushed for a sunset clause that would have put time limits on the measures and tried to ensure that they could only be used to fight coronavirus, but say the government rejected their compromise and vilified them in pro-government media.
“Rule of law has to persist even in the most unstable times,” said Katalin Cseh, a member of the European Parliament for the Momentum Party. “I find it very worrying that the government is more interested in sowing divide than agreeing on a bipartisan solution to fight the uprising.”
Democratic norms and the rule of law have long been backsliding in Hungary. Orban, who served as prime minister from 1998-2002 and began his current stint in the office in 2010, has consolidated executive power, undermined the independence of courts and changed the electoral process to his benefit over the last decade.
His allies have largely taken over the country’s media, and he has pressured the country’s cultural and historical institutions to fit his nationalist narrative. The EU triggered Article 7 proceedings against Hungary in late 2018, which are reserved for countries threatening to undermine the union’s founding values.
Orban, a populist with a knack for using crises to his personal gain, postures himself as sole defender of the nation against a long list of enemies that include liberals, Muslims, the EU and billionaire George Soros. He has already blamed illegal immigration for the coronavirus outbreak and criticized EU officials opposed to his new powers.
“I really hope that we can be vigilant, everybody who cares about democracy and democratic values, so that we don’t let this crisis be used for something that is clearly reprehensible on any other occasion,” Cseh said.
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