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Explainer: What is happening with Hungary's new Covid-19 laws and why are they so controversial?

A contentious bill was passed by the Hungarian parliament last night.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

NEW LAWS WHICH granting Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban stronger powers to fight the coronavirus have caused concern across Europe after critics accused him of using the pandemic to cement his hold on power.

The laws, which were passed by the country’s parliament last night, give Orban the power to indefinitely rule by decree until the government there decides the Covid-19 crisis is over.

However, opposition parties and human rights groups have suggested that the laws are anti-democratic and many fear that Orban’s new powers will be used to extend the government’s grip on Hungarian society.

Others have wondered what the move means for the European project.

Hungary is an EU Member State, and questions have been raised as to how much the union will tolerate an increasingly authoritarian regime within the bloc.

Yesterday’s developments also have implications for the European Parliament and domestic Irish politics: Orban’s Fidesz party is a member of the European People’s Party group – the largest in Brussels – along with Fine Gael. 

Fine Gael has so far stayed silent on the issue, despite others decrying recent developments in Hungary. Here’s what’s happened there so far. 

Sweeping powers

After declaring a state of emergency on 11 March, Orban tabled an “anti-coronavirus defence law” last week to fight the ongoing global pandemic.

The fiercely anti-immigration prime minister has blamed migration for bringing the virus to Hungary, saying “primarily foreigners brought in the disease”.

The first two confirmed coronavirus cases in the country – announced on 4 March – were Iranian students. Hungary has since confirmed 447 cases of the virus with 15 deaths. More than 13,300 tests have been carried out.

The laws, which came into effect at midnight last night, give Orban sweeping powers that effectively give him the ability to remain in charge of Hungary until the country’s parliament says otherwise. 

They mean Orban is now ruling Hungary by decree, and that a usual requirement for MPs to approve any extensions to such decrees has now been done away with.

Elections cannot be held during a period of emergency, like the current one, which will allow Fidesz – which has a two-thirds majority in parliament – to continue ruling in Hungary until it decides that the emergency is over.

The law also sets prison terms of up to five years for those convicted of spreading false information about the pandemic and up to eight years for those interfering with efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus, like a curfew or quarantine.

“At the end of the emergency, all powers will be fully restored” to parliament, said Orban after the vote, dismissing opposition fears of a long-running period of rule-by-decree.

Decade in power

The bill, which passed by 137 votes to 53, marked another controversial milestone in Orban’s fractious decade in power.

Since the self-styled “illiberal” nationalist took charge of the country in 2010, he has transformed Hungary’s political, judicial and constitutional landscape.

The 56-year-old has frequently clashed with European institutions, NGOs and rights groups, with Brussels suing Hungary for “breaching” EU values – charges fiercely denied by Budapest.

virus-outbreak-hungary Faction leader of the opposition party Jobbik Peter Jakab asks Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban a question last night Source: AP/PA Images

Following the vote, the EU’s Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said that the European Commission “evaluates the emergency measures taken by Member States with regard to fundamental rights”.

This was “particularly the case for the law passed today”, he added.

Slovenian MEP Tanja Fajon, who represents the Party of European Socialists accused Orban of dismantling democracy in front of Europe’s eyes. 

“This is a shame for Europe, its fundamental values and democracy,” she said. He (Orban) abused coronavirus as an excuse to kill democracy and media freedom.”

But Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga said criticism of the bill were political in nature, saying the attacks were “based on the wrong interpretation or intentional distortion” of its contents.

Carte blanche to restrict rights 

Other international bodies expressed concern over the bill before it became law, including the UN human rights office, the Council of Europe, and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Rights groups and officials say the new laws create the possibility of an indefinite state of emergency and give Orban and his government carte blanche to restrict human rights and crack down on freedom of the press.

“This is not the way to address the very real crisis that has been caused by the Covid-19 pandemic,” said David Vig, Amnesty International’s Hungary director.

The human rights chief of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said while she understands the need to act swiftly to protect populations from the pandemic, the newly declared states of emergency must include a time limit and parliamentary oversight.

“A state of emergency — wherever it is declared and for whatever reason — must be proportionate to its aim, and only remain in place for as long as absolutely necessary,” said the OSCE rights chief, Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir.

Last week, opposition MPs warned they did not trust Orban not to indefinitely abuse the special powers and refused to support fast-tracking the bill without time deadlines.

Many cited a so-called “state of crisis caused by mass migration” that Orban’s ruling Fidesz party declared in 2016 and which remains in place, despite migration numbers to Hungary having fallen sharply since then.

But government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs said last night that the new decrees were also time-limited by the pandemic itself, which “hopefully ends one day”.

Meanwhile, neither the EU and Fine Gael have commented publicly on the issue for now – but don’t be surprised if either weighs in if the controversy ramps up further.  

With reporting from Associated Press and  © AFP 2020

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