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Hungary: Orban uses pandemic to try and seize unlimited power

Hungary’s parliament will consider an emergency bill next week that would give prime minister Viktor Orbán sweeping powers to rule by decree, without a clear cut-off date. The bill seeks to extend indefinitely Hungary’s state of emergency, which was declared two weeks ago. Parliament would only be able to lift the state of emergency by a two-thirds majority, exactly the majority held by ruling party Fidesz, meaning ultimately it’s Orban’s decision.

According to the draft law, during the state of emergency, no elections, including by-elections, local elections, or referendums can be held. The government has portrayed the move as a necessary response to the unprecedented challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, but critics immediately labelled the legislation as dangerously open-ended and vulnerable to abuse.

“You can’t have a completely unrestricted mandate for the government,” Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, told the Guardian. “The current draft does exactly that. It basically gives an open-ended carte-blanche mandate.”

The bill will have to be voted on next week after opposition MPs on Monday blocked the use of an emergency mechanism that would have seen it come to a vote more quickly.

The bill would make it possible to lock up anyone for up to eight years “who interferes with the operation of a quarantine or isolation order”, which raises concerns over sweeping powers of the government to round up people.

The bill could also see people jailed for spreading information deemed to be fake news, as it would introduce prison terms of up to five years for anyone publicising false information that alarms the public or impedes government efforts to protect people. It caused disquiet among independent journalists, who have often been accused by the government and its loyal stable of media outlets of peddling fake news.

“The past 10 years have served as ample proof that the Hungarian government exploits and abuses opportunities to weaken institutions serving as a check on its power, whenever it has the chance to do so,” the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital said to the Guardian.

“Extraordinary legal situations are very easy to introduce, but it is much harder to return to business as usual afterwards.”

In a joint statement on Monday several human rights groups, including Amnesty International Hungary, the Karoly Eotvos Institute, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, said that “unlimited power is no solution” to the crisis and drew parallels with what they say were the Orban government’s previous attempts to remove checks on its power.

Orbán has governed over the past few years on a staunchly nationalist, anti-migration platform, and has already drawn a link between migration and the virus.

When Gyorgy Bakondi, national security adviser to the prime minister, announced on 1 March that Hungary indefinitely had suspended access to border transit areas for asylum seekers, he said at the press conference:

“We observe a certain link between coronavirus and illegal migrants,” without giving any data to support his claim.

Gerald Knaus, founder of the European Stability Initiative think tank, said on Twitter that Orban has used the coronavirus outbreak as an excuse to abolish the right to asylum in Hungary.

As of the morning of 23 March, there were 167 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Hungary with seven deaths, much lower than in neighbouring Austria and many other western European countries. Part of the reason for the lower numbers could be the much lower levels of testing. With a population of nearly 10 million, Hungary has so far carried out only around 5,000 tests.

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