Orban granted emergency powers with no time limit

The parliament in Budapest, where ruling Fidesz party has a comfortable two-thirds majority, voted on Monday a law granting the government with sweeping emergency powers, giving PM Viktor Orban the possibility to rule indefinitely. According to Orban himself, they are necessary to fight the coronavirus pandemic. His critics claim that he is simply using the pandemic to grab more power.

According to the law, the government will not need parliament to impose new rules, and instead will be allowed to rule by decree. Furthermore, those who are considered spreading false information about the pandemic will be punished with up to five years in prison. "When this emergency ends, we will give back all powers, without exception," Orban said before the vote.

But critics insist that Orban is using the pandemic to grab more power. "An indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency cannot guarantee that the basic principles of democracy will be observed," Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić wrote to Orban on 24 March. "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,” government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said.

Kim Lane Scheppele, a Hungary expert at Princeton University, says Orban has stretched the law like no one else. "Bolsanaro in Brazil, Kaczynski in Poland, Trump in the US, all of them have thought about using emergency powers. But no one has yet gone as far as Orban to really shut down democracy as anybody knew it in Hungary before," she says.

Although Orban is generally popular with Hungarians, even supporters of his Fidesz party are concerned about the country's health care system. "The irony is that the government is giving itself extreme powers, but it is not taking any extreme measures when it comes to combating the coronavirus,” political analyst Gabor Gyori said.

By Monday Hungary has confirmed 447 cases of Covid-19 and 15 deaths, far fewer than most other European countries, most probably because not much of Hungary's population has been tested. The health system is ill-prepared to handle testing because it lacks epidemiologists, who left after repeated restructuring in the last 15 years bled it dry, according to a report by the investigative reporting outlet Direkt 36.

More on this subject: Coronavirus

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