Hungary’s nationalist leader Viktor Orban is ruling by decree indefinitely amid coronavirus

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (C) votes with other representatives about the government’s bill on the protection against the new coronavirus COVID-19 at the plenary session of the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest, Hungary on March 30, 2020.

ZOLTAN MATHE

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been granted the right to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time, and these new sweeping powers are raising concerns in Europe.

The Hungarian parliament approved a bill Monday that allows Orban to rule the country by decree, meaning that he does not need to consult with other lawmakers to make decisions. The legislation, which came into force Tuesday, has been justified as an emergency response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

As a result, the bill criminalizes any attempts to stop the Hungarian government fighting the outbreak, including the spreading of false information, which could be punishable with a prison sentence of up to five years.

“The Hungarian government’s primary concern during the coronavirus pandemic is the protection of human lives,” a spokesperson for the Hungarian government told CNBC via email Tuesday.

However, the bill has sparked criticism elsewhere in Europe.

“Covid-19 requires adequate responses. But they must not endanger rule of law, disempower democratic institutions or put fundamental rights at risk. We need to overcome this together, not rule through decrees,” Michael Roth, Germany’s minister for European affairs, said Monday.

Orban has been in the spotlight over recent years for his government’s increasing oversight of the judiciary, media and foreign universities.

The enabling act … shows that PM Orban is using every opportunity to gain excessive, unchecked power and to rule by decree.

David Vig

Director at Amnesty International in Hungary

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, opened proceedings against Hungary in 2018 for threatening the region’s democratic values. However, the process has stalled, with the European Commission seeking an agreement with Budapest, rather than imposing fines or other sanctions on the country.

The European Commission was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC Tuesday. 

Orban is “using the pandemic as an excuse to cement his power,” Lydia Gall, eastern Europe and Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch, told CNBC Tuesday over the phone. “It is a pretext for the government…to do whatever they want.”

A worker disinfects the area in an underpass in Budapest early morning on March 31, 2020, amid the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

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 The emergency bill also allows Orban to prevent public demonstrations and mitigate criticism by political opponents and the media. He will be the one to decide when the current emergency state is over.

“The enabling act … shows that PM Orban is using every opportunity to gain excessive, unchecked power and to rule by decree,” David Vig, director at Amnesty International in Hungary, told CNBC Tuesday. He said that subsequent decrees should be watched for potential human rights violations.

The spokesperson for the Hungarian government added: “False claims of a power grab in Hungary are just that. Such insinuations are not only incorrect but defamatory, and impede the government’s efforts in slowing down the spread of the coronavirus.”

Duration a ‘more concerning issue’ 

Orban has been Hungary’s prime minister since 2010. His party was suspended from the conservative political group in the European Parliament, the EU’s only elected chamber, about a year ago, for concerns over his actions against an independent judiciary and the media.

Technically, Hungary’s new law could be withdrawn by parliament and the Constitutional Court also has the power to assess the government’s decrees. However, Orban’s political party has two thirds of the chamber and the Court has many members loyal to the government.

“These institutions do not serve as credible checks on the government’s actions,” Andrius Tursa, central and eastern Europe advisor at the research firm Teneo, said in a note Monday.

He added that “the duration of the state of emergency, during which the executive holds special powers, is a more concerning issue,” and that “Orban could keep the state of emergency in place for much longer than needed to handle the Covid-19 outbreak.” 

Hungary has reported 492 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 15 deaths as of Monday morning, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The figures are much lower than those from the worst-hit countries in Europe, namely Italy, Spain and France.

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