June 3, 2023

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Coronavirus: Hungary far-right leader handed sweeping new powers to rule by decree


Under the new measures, which have no time limit, Mr Orban now has the right to bypass Hungary’s National Assembly on any law, effectively placing the country under his sole command.

The legislation has triggered criticism by the Hungarian opposition, human rights groups and the Council of Europe, Europe’s main rights forum, given its lack of timeframe.

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“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, a professor of comparative constitutional law at Central European University in Budapest.

David Vig, Amnesty International’s Hungary director, said this “is not the way to address the very real crisis that has been caused by the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Mr Orban secured the extra powers on Monday after the Hungarian parliament, where the prime minister’s Fidesz party has a two-thirds majority, passed the law with 137 votes to 52.

The bill allows the government to indefinitely extend the country’s state of emergency and the attached rule-by-decree powers, according to a draft of the bill posted on the parliament website. Normally such extensions would need approval by Hungary’s parliament.

It has also introduced jail terms of up to five years for “distorting” facts and spreading misinformation that hampers the government’s efforts to contain the outbreak, raising concern that it could lead to censorship.

Justice minister Judit Varga dismissed all criticism of the new powers as unfounded, saying the law’s scope is “limited” and envisions only “necessary and proportionate measures” to fight Covid-19.

Zoltan Kovacs, an international spokesman of the Hungarian government, said: “Each and every country is trying to use the best methods and measures according to their own needs and framework.

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“That is what Hungary is doing.”

Critics have said the legalisation may allow Fidesz to extend the country’s current emergency measures – which have placed all by-elections and referendums on hold – for as long as the effects of coronavirus are felt.

Mr Orban’s track record suggests he may not give up the powers quickly. After first announcing a “state of emergency for mass immigration” following the 2015 refugee crisis, his anti-immigrant party has repeatedly renewed the legislation, even as the number of asylum seekers arriving in Hungary has fallen.

Timea Szabo, an opposition lawmaker from the Dialogue for Hungary Party, said that there was no trust in the government.

“If you look at the past 10 years, they’ve used their power to curb democracy and the rule of law,” he said. “So we need some kind of guarantee that they’re not going to do that again.

“If all the countries in Europe could introduce similar laws with a time limit, then I believe that a Hungarian government should do that as well.”

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