• Orban now enjoys nearly unlimited power for an undetermined period of time
  • Opposition groups said the law was unnecessary since Orban already holds a majority in parliament
  • Orban has repeatedly clashed with the EU and human rights groups



The parliament of Hungary on Monday passed a new law granting prime minister Viktor Orban the right to rule by decree as it fights the coronavirus epidemic. As a result, the far right Orban now enjoys nearly unlimited power for an undetermined period of time.

Orban, who called for the move, can now issue special decrees without challenge. The bill also allows the government to indefinitely extend the country's state of emergency – which was ordered on Mar. 11. Elections also cannot take place during an emergency.

The law passed by a vote of 137 to 53 in Hungary's lower chamber, where Orban's ruling Fidesz party holds a two-thirds majority.

"Changing our lives is now unavoidable," Orban told parliament last week. "Everyone has to leave their comfort zone. This law gives the government the power and means to defend Hungary."

“When this emergency ends, we will give back all powers, without exception," Orban assured on Monday after the vote.

The law also provides for prison terms of up to five years for people who spread "fake news" about the virus – a move widely viewed as a threat to the freedom of the press.

Hungary has confirmed more than 440 cases of coronavirus and 15 deaths, although few people have been tested compared to other European nations. Orban has already blamed immigrants for bringing the virus to Hungary.

Human rights activists across Europe and opposition politicians have condemned the move.

"This is the only country in Europe that has unlimited power for an unlimited amount of time," said Art Szoczi, Deutsche Welle’s correspondent in Budapest. "Opposition parties are concerned that that means there could be an abuse of power. There were actually a number of opposition members who said they agree with the unlimited powers, but not the unlimited amount of time."

Orban, who came to power in 2010, has repeatedly clashed with the EU and human rights groups.

The Council of Europe wrote to Orban earlier this month, warning that an "indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency cannot guarantee that the basic principles of democracy will be observed."

Orban angrily responded to Council of Europe Secretary General Pejcinovic Buric: "If you are not able to help us in the current crisis, please at least refrain from hindering our defensive efforts."

EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders has said his group will study the Hungarian bill to determine if it conforms to EU standards.

"We will verify what kind of text will be adopted … and of course we will verify if it's in line with our vision on the rule of law and fundamental rights, and if it's needed to take an initiative," he said last week.

Kim Lane Scheppele, an expert on Hungary at Princeton University, said Orban has bent the law to his own ends.

"Bolsanaro in Brazil, Kaczynski in Poland ... Trump in the United States, all of them have thought about using emergency powers,” she said. “But no one has yet gone as far as Orban to really shut down democracy as anybody knew it in Hungary before.”

Timea Szabo, an opposition lawmaker from the Dialogue for Hungary Party, condemned Orban’s move as a power grab.

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

The chief of the opposition Jobbik party, Peter Jakab, said that the law put Hungarian democracy in “quarantine” and that “nothing justifies giving an eternal mandate to Orban.” (Jobbik is even further to the right on the political spectrum than Fidesz).

Zsofia Kollanyi, a health policy expert at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, warned that while the government increases its power, it has done little to upgrade the country’s health care system which is beleaguered by shortages.

"It's not just that there are not enough nurses and doctors but also that we are spending ... less and less on health care," she said. "That's something that's got to change, especially now."

"Beyond further increasing his power, Orban's goal was to present a bill that cannot be supported by opposition MPs, so that they can be blamed throughout the emergency for not supporting the government in times of crisis," said Andras Biro-Nagy, an analyst at the Budapest-based Policy Solutions think-tank. "National unity is not Orban's way of doing politics.”

David Vig, Amnesty International’s Hungary Director, warned: “This bill [will] create an indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency and give Viktor Orban and his government carte blanche to restrict human rights. This is not the way to address the very real crisis that has been caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Vig added that during his years as Prime Minister, Orban has “overseen a rollback of human rights in Hungary, stoking up hostility towards marginalized groups and attempting to muzzle Hungary’s critical voices. Allowing his government to rule by decree would likely speed this rollback.”

A government spokesman defended the new measure.

"Well, all the criticism that is coming from different corners of the political arena… is yet another illustration of the double standards we've been seeing against Hungary for the past 10 years,” said Zoltan Kovacs. “Each and every country is trying to use the best methods and measures according to their own needs and framework. That is what Hungary is doing."

A pro-Fidesz analyst, Zoltan Kiszelly, also supported the new law.

"The government wanted to have a free hand in dealing with this pandemic, that’s why they wanted to have this power,” he told BBC. "But there is … no intention of the government to limit freedom of speech or freedom of the media."