Viktor Orbán uses coronavirus pandemic to complete his dictatorship

The party state’s two-thirds majority in parliament meant that with 138 voting for and just 53 against, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has secured the right to rule by decree for an unlimited period of time, and to unilaterally suspend existing laws, ostensibly in an effort to better address the COVID-19 pandemic in Hungary. On Monday, the number of Hungarians confirmed to have the virus rose to 447, while the number of deaths totalled 15. The opposition parties, including the centre-left Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), the Democratic Coalition (DK), Politics Can Be Different (LMP), Dialogue (Párbeszéd) and Momentum, all voted against the proposal, as did the right-wing Jobbik party. While the Hungarian opposition, though fractured, agreed on the need for the Fidesz government to have more leeway in a period of crisis, their main demand was to attach an end date to Mr. Orbán’s ability to rule by decree, rather than give him an indefinite carte blanche. Opposition parties, despite more widespread concerns about growing authoritarianism, were open to supporting the legislation if it came with a sixty or ninety day sunset clause. It was a reasonable demand and in times of unprecedented crisis, governments and the opposition manage to work together in a spirit of conciliation — except in Hungary.

The Hungarian parliament on 30 March 2020.

With the right to rule by decree for an indeterminate period of time, the newly adopted piece of legislation, also signed into law by President János Áder with lightning speed, allows for the following:

  • Imprisonment of one to five years for disseminating news or gossip deemed to be false about the coronavirus situation;
  • By-elections and referendums cannot be held during the period of national emergency;
  • Imprisonment of up to three years for anyone who hinders authorities in quarantining individuals or in the enforcement and monitoring of quarantines.

Rule by decree will remain in effect until the coronacrisis is deemed to have passed — and it is in the gift of the Fidesz government alone to make this determination. Few checks and balances now exist. One of these is the Constitutional Court, where it is doubtful that a decision unfavourable to Mr. Orbán would be rendered. The other is that one quarter of members of parliament may vote to review and debate specific decrees. In a parliament where Fidesz enjoys a solid two thirds majority, such reviews amount to little more than window dressing. In the most extreme scenario, should the Coronavirus crisis be deemed unresolved in Spring 2022 by the Hungarian government, the current legislation would ensure that no national elections are held and Mr. Orbán could government without a mandate indefinitely. Should, however, elections proceed, the opposition will find itself in the midst of a propaganda storm on how it “opposed” the government’s efforts when it came to addressing the coronavirus and went against the interests of the Hungarian nation. Mr. Orbán’s already unchecked rule will be significantly emboldened.

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