Spectre of coronavirus quarantine haunts Hungarian democracy

·4 min read

Budapest (AFP) - A "dictatorship" at the heart of the EU? A draft law to grant anti-coronavirus emergency measures set for adoption by Budapest has alarmed observers who fear it could hand Prime Minister Viktor Orban unlimited power.

After declaring a state of emergency on March 11, Orban expects parliament Monday 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.

"Hungary is a special case, nowhere else have you the kind of extraordinary measures that Orban is proposing," said Milan Nic, an expert with the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations.

The parliament, dominated by Orban's right-wing Fidesz party, is expected to approve his "anti-coronavirus defence law" with the necessary two-thirds majority despite protests at home and abroad.

The law would also enable jail terms for "scaremongering" publishers of "false or distorted information" about the virus and the government's measures, stoking new worries for Hungarian press freedoms that have dwindled under Orban.

- 'EU's first dictatorship'? -

A former anti-communist turned self-styled "illiberal" nationalist, the 56-year-old Orban has also transformed Hungary's political, judicial, and constitutional landscape since he came to power in 2010.

His many clashes with the European institutions, NGOs and rights groups over migration, democracy, and the rule of law have seen Hungary sued by Brussels for "breaching" EU values -- charges fiercely denied by Budapest.

"Until now, the system installed by Orban was seen as a 'hybrid state', neither democracy nor dictatorship," said Austrian-Hungarian author Paul Lendvai in an editorial this week in Austria's Der Standard, before wondering whether the new powers could turn Hungary into "the EU's first dictatorship".

Orban's latest move will also pick at already raw relations between Fidesz and the European Parliament's conservative EPP grouping who have dithered over expelling the party from their ranks.

For EPP MEP Othmar Karas of Austria's conservative OeVP party, the latest furore firmly "puts Orban on the path" of authoritarian Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an ally of the Hungarian.

For his part Orban unabashedly continues to portray himself as a traditional conservative.

He has given criticism of the law short shrift, insisting it merely follows "similar legal practice" elsewhere in the EU.

"I have clearly told the European moaners... that this is not the time for me to argue over all kinds of legal, no doubt exciting, theoretical questions," he told public radio on Friday.

"If they can't help, then at least don't stop the Hungarians from defending (against the virus)," he added.

Justice Minister Judit Varga told foreign reporters in Budapest Friday that parliament can always revoke decrees before the end of the emergency period, while parties can ask for constitutional court reviews.

She accused critics of "fighting imaginary demons and not dealing with reality.

The government also argues that extending the special powers is supported by the majority.

Pro-government media meanwhile has accused the opposition of being on the side of the virus by potentially preventing essential measures to fight it.

But according to Zoltan Fleck, a law professor at Budapest's ELTE university, the Hungarian context of a decade of strongarm rule by Orban makes rule-by-decree more perilous than elsewhere.

"In a weakened constitutional state, special powers are always very risky," he said in a recent interview.

- Attempted 'coup d'etat' claim-

The spokesman for the UN human rights office, Rupert Colville, said Friday that the body was following the Hungarian developments "with concern".

He said measures taken by all governments to tackle the virus "need to be proportionate to the evaluated risk, and applied fairly, with a specific focus and duration".

As one Hungarian opposition party slammed Orban's proposal as an attempted "coup d'etat" others, wary of a prolonged "crisis" lasting months or even years beyond the end of the pandemic, urged him to earn trust by fixing a time limit on the special powers.

But Orban, typically, has refused to budge, despite calling for national unity. "We don't need the opposition to solve this crisis," he said Monday.

And his is not the only EU member where there are fears of states abusing their powers in the current crisis -- recent moves in Bulgaria and Poland have also sparked alarm.