Hungary’s Orban seeks sweeping new powers in virus fight

Orban's government proposed the bill to parliament to enable wide rule-by-decree powers

Hungary’s parliament was expected to endorse a bill on Monday giving nationalist premier Viktor Orban sweeping new powers he says he needs to fight the new coronavirus pandemic.

Critics at home and abroad have condemned the “anti-coronavirus defence law”, saying it gives Orban unnecessary and unlimited power in a ruse to cement his leadership rather than battle the virus.

After declaring a state of emergency on March 11, Orban expects parliament to allow him to extend it indefinitely beyond an initial 15-day period and largely rule by decree in order to fight COVID-19 and its impacts.

According to the draft posted on the parliament website on March 20, the bill would enable the government to indefinitely extend powers of decree until it decides when the state of emergency is over, removing the current requirement for MPs to approve any extension.

It also introduces jail terms of up to five years for anyone spreading “falsehoods” about the virus or the measures against it, stoking new worries for press freedom.

Since taking power in 2010, the self-styled “illiberal” nationalist has transformed Hungary’s political, judicial and constitutional landscape.

The 56-year-old has frequently clashed with European institutions, NGOs and rights groups with Brussels suing Hungary for “breaching” EU values — charges fiercely denied by Budapest.

Orban has given criticism of the coronavirus law short shrift, accusing critics of alarmism and appealing to “European nit-pickers” to let Hungary defend itself against COVID-19.

– ‘Imaginary demons’ –

“If they can’t help, then at least don’t stop the Hungarians from defending (against the virus),” he said Friday.

His justice minister, Judit Varga, told foreign reporters Friday that parliament could revoke the decrees at any time, and that the opposition were “fighting imaginary demons and not dealing with reality”.

She also said decrees could be sent to the constitutional court for review.

A government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs insisted on Twitter Monday that the bill is time limited by the parliament’s powers of revoke, and by the pandemic itself which “hopefully ends one day”.

He added that “72 per cent of Hungarians support this measure”, referring to a recent poll about the provision on spreading falsehoods.

Last week, opposition MPs said however they do not trust Orban not to abuse unlimited special powers and refused to back the bill unless a time deadline is imposed on the decrees.

But it is almost certain to be made law when it comes before MPs as Orban’s Fidesz party enjoys a two-thirds majority.

A government minister, Gergely Gulyas, said it could come into force Monday midnight if the house speaker and Hungarian president sign it immediately.

Agnes Kunhalmi, a lawmaker for socialist opposition party MSZP, urged Orban to “not perpetrate political games against the opposition” and add a three-month expiration date to the bill.

– ‘Principles of democracy’ –

Akos Hadhazy, an independent MP, told AFP that Orban did not need any “extraordinary empowerment” as his party already controls parliament and had instead set up a “trap for the opposition” with pro-government media accusing it of being on the side of the virus by opposing the bill.

Criticism of the bill has also come from abroad with the UN human rights office saying it was following the Hungarian developments “with concern”.

The Council of Europe also wrote a letter to Orban last week, warning that an “indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency cannot guarantee that the basic principles of democracy will be observed.”

The fiercely anti-immigration Orban has blamed migration for bringing the virus to Hungary, saying “primarily foreigners brought in the disease”.

The first two confirmed coronavirus cases in the EU member state of 10 million involved Iranian students.

Hungary has since reported a total of 447 cases with 15 deaths. More than 13,300 tests have been carried out, the government said Monday.

Orban’s latest move will also strain already difficult relations between Fidesz and the European Parliament’s conservative EPP grouping which has dithered over expelling the party from their ranks.

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