The Hungarian parliament has voted in the face of the coronavirus pandemic to allow the government of Victor Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely. This decree gives the prime minister free rein to combat the virus but raises questions as to how it will be used.
The decree, which passed with a two-thirds majority, suspends elections for the foreseeable future. It also allows Orbán’s government the ability to refuse to enforce any laws it sees fit.
It also gives the government new powers to clamp down on news organisations that publish false or misleading news reports. A crime the legislation makes punishable by as long as five years in jail for anyone deemed hampering the virus fight.
Orbán speaking on the Hungarian national Kossuth radio said:
“We cannot react quickly if there are debates and lengthy legislative and law-making 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.”
Organisations within Hungary have been quick to speak out. “I don’t know of another democracy where the government has effectively asked for a free hand to do anything for however long,” said Renata Uitz, director of the comparative constitutional-law program at Central European University in Budapest.
Organisations have a right to be concerned over the indefinite nature of the bill. Orbán has already shown an unwillingness to give up power. Such as when given emergency powers to combat the recent migration crisis in Europe. Orbán refused to give this power up even when the number of immigrants to Hungary plummeted.
How are other countries’ responding?
These new powers extend far beyond what any other EU leader has the power to do. The UK coronavirus bill has given Boris Johnson and his ministers new powers but with the caveat that Parliament must vote for their renewal every six months. Similarly, in France powers given to Macron come with a limit of two months.
Following the passage of the decree, international organisations are calling for greater clarity as to how these laws will be enforced. Orbán, already one of the most authoritarian leaders in Europe, clashes frequently with the EU most notably on immigration. His consolidation of power through stacking the judicial branch with loyalists is one prime example.
Others such as former Italian Prime minister Matteo Renzi are even calling for the EU to consider expelling Hungary from the bloc for this new decree, arguing that Hungary no longer meets the minimum eligibility of being a democracy.
Justice Commissioner of the EU Didier Reynders responded to news of the decree on twitter saying, “The EU Commission evaluates the emergency measures taken by Member States with regard to fundamental rights. This is particularly the case for the law passed today in Hungary concerning the state of emergency and new criminal penalties for the dissemination of false information”.
Right now, any repercussions from Brussels are paralysed by the pandemic. Additionally, any response will be closely observed by Eurosceptics who claim the EU has abandoned them in this time of need. A heavy hand may create more enemies than friends for the EU but no response at all may end up costing more in normalising a regime entirely at odds with the EU charter.
By Sakariya Yasin