Today in Budapest the National Assembly, which is Hungary’s parliamentary body, approved the government’s request for the power to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time. The new legislation gives extraordinary powers to Prime Minister Viktor Orban, effectively placing him in sole command of Hungary with absolutely no oversight. The move was made to give the government all of the necessary tools to effectively combat COVID-19. Many nations across Europe and other parts of the world have allowed their governments to assume emergency powers in the pandemic, but none have taken a step as drastic as Hungary has. The National Assembly has essentially handed Orban the keys to the kingdom without any assurances he will give them back when the pandemic comes to an end.
The new legislation extends the present state of emergency now in effect. It lays the foundation for jail terms of up to five years on individuals, and organizations hindering measures to curb the spread of the virus or spreading false information that could upset people or hinder the fight against the virus. Human Rights groups, and opposition parties inside Hungary fear Orban will use this to neutralize domestic journalists and media outlets opposing the Orban government.
The legislation also gives Orban the power to bypass parliament when making decisions, eliminating the body’s ability to act as a check on possible abuses of power Orban. The Constitutional Court will retain the power to review government actions, however, the court is filled with justices loyal to Orban, so its ability to provide objective oversight is questionable.
Even though Orban and his allies have promised the emergency measures are temporary and will pose no threat to democracy in Hungary, his opponents inside of the country, and across Europe aren’t so sure. The European Union has not responded to events in Hungary today, and given the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, it could be some time before that happens.
On a final note, what has taken place in Hungary is a textbook example of what was discussed in the previous blog post. Actions taken during the pandemic will certainly produce far reaching consequences once things return to normal, whether leaders, and citizens realize it or not.