Hungary’s parliament handed Prime Minister Viktor Orban the right to rule by decree indefinitely, effectively putting the European Union democracy under his sole command for as long as he sees fit.
While governments around the world assume emergency powers to fight the coronavirus, locking down all aspects of every-day life and shutting borders, few democracies have given their governments such latitude without an end date.
Hungary’s ruling party lawmakers overrode the objections of the opposition in a vote on Monday, handing Orban the right to bypass the assembly on any law. The Constitutional Court, which Orban has stacked with loyalists, will be the main body capable of reviewing government actions.
The emergency-rule law “poses no threat to democracy,” Orban told lawmakers after the vote. His detractors didn’t agree.
“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.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted with skepticism to Orban’s move. Although all EU states are determined to fight the coronavirus, this crisis also demands the rule of law, Merkel’s spokesman said in an emailed statement. Citing a declaration of the EU Council from last Thursday, he said, “We will do everything that is necessary to protect our citizens and overcome the crisis, while preserving our European values and way of life.”
The legislation’s scope is “limited” and envisions only “necessary and proportionate measures” to fight Covid-19, Justice Minister Judit Varga told journalists on Friday. The cabinet has already been granted emergency powers and the legislation actually gives parliament the right to end that, she said.
Varga asked journalists not to “distort” facts, a crime the legislation makes punishable by as long as five years in jail for anyone deemed hampering the virus fight.
The forint tumbled toward a record low against the euro on Monday, weakened in part by the dovish policies of the central bank.
Faith in Orban to exercise restraint is running low. In the past decade, the nationalist leader has used supermajorities in parliament to dismantle checks and balances, build the EU’s largest state propaganda machine and crack down on civil society to silence dissent.
The EU is probing the erosion of the rule-of-law, though it’s lacked the will to rein in Orban as populism flourishes across the bloc. The EU’s executive will review Hungary’s emergency-rule law to see if it’s in line with its norms, Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said on Twitter.
Orban’s track record indicates he may not give up the powers quickly. His anti-immigrant Fidesz party has continuously renewed a “state of emergency for mass immigration,” announced after the 2015 refugee crisis, even after the number of asylum seekers arriving to Hungary plunged.
The law approved Monday is for the “prevention, handling and elimination of the human pandemic as well as to prevent and blunt its harmful effects,” which legal experts said may allow Fidesz to keep the emergency measures in place as long as they see potential effects of the virus.
By-elections and referendums can’t be held. There’s no word on national elections, with the next parliamentary ballot due in 2022.
Orban is portraying the opposition, which had pleaded with the premier to introduce a renewable 90-day sunset clause, as deserting the country at a time when unity should have prevailed.
It may help him deflect blame for failing to fix Hungary’s underfunded hospitals, which are at risk of being overwhelmed faster than health-care systems in some other EU countries. Opposition parties have for years criticized Orban for splurging on vanity projects, including over-sized soccer stadiums.
“In light of previous experiences with authoritarian dynamics in Hungary, once passed, the enabling act will not be rescinded anytime soon,” said Daniel Hegedus, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.
(Updates with German reaction in 6th paragraph)
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