Hungary’s Orban Uses Pandemic to Seize Unlimited Power

Emergency Draft Law A Clear Threat to Democratic Freedoms

Update: The state of emergency law was adopted by the Hungarian parliament on March 30, signed by the president shortly afterwards, and enters into force at midnight the same day

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has seized the COVID-19 pandemic to undermine fundamental principles of democracy and rule of law in a way that is hard to reconcile as necessary for public health.

An emergency draft law will, if adopted, give Orban and the executive branch extraordinary powers to suspend certain laws and implement others by decree for as long as the emergency continues. The law would sidestep the parliamentary process and give Orban and his government the means to exercise arbitrary and unlimited power.

The draft law, which could be voted on as early as March 23, would extend indefinitely Hungary’s state of emergency, declared two weeks ago.  Parliament would only be able to lift the state of emergency by a two-thirds majority, exactly the majority held by ruling party Fidesz, meaning ultimately it’s Orban’s decision.

People keep their distance as they queue up in front of a post office in Pecs, Hungary, Monday, March 16, 2020.

© 2020 Tamas Soki/MTI via AP

According to the draft law, during the state of emergency no elections, including by-elections, local elections, or referendums can be held.

The draft legislation also creates new offences, for example anyone who publishes “false” or “distorted” facts could face up to five years in prison. With Orban’s terrible track record on media freedom, this raises genuine fears that the law aims to crush Hungary’s last critical voices. In addition, anyone who breaks quarantine orders faces a prison sentence, which in certain circumstances could be a long as 8 years. Both crimes will be permanent additions to the criminal code and won’t disappear from the books when the emergency ends.

While many countries are taking extraordinary measures to deal with the virus, the Hungarian draft bill, failing to justify each of its measures as strictly necessary to address a public health emergency and only that, offers the spectre of a power grab. Parliament should block this law to safeguard democracy, or else Hungary is likely to bear the consequences for many years to come, even when the pandemic recedes.