Hungary passed on Monday (30 March) a law that gives sweeping new powers to prime minister Viktor Orban to rule by decree – for an unlimited period of time.
This makes Hungary the first EU country to be put under the exclusive command of the government for as long as the prime minister sees it fit.
The Orban government, which controls two-thirds of MPs in the parliament, argues the new powers are needed to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
The move were approved by 137 votes in favour, and 53 against, in the 199 member parliament.
The new powers include suspending enforcement of certain laws, not only ones related to the crisis.
It also imposes jail terms for those disseminating news deemed untrue or distorted, prompting renewed fears over press freedom in Budapest.
Elections and referendums will be postponed for the indefinite time of the emergency.
During the emergency period the government will brief the parliament on its moves; the new law does not, however, suspend parliament.
In case the parliament is suspended, due to the pandemic, the government will brief the speaker of the assembly and the heads of party groups, raising concerns that the parliament could be sidelined.
The government argued the new emergency measures can be revoked anytime by the parliament, but the government enjoys a two-thirds majority in the assembly, making it their prerogative to end the emergency.
The law, first proposed on 20 March, removes the current requirement for MPs to approve any extension to the state of emergency.
Opposition parties have criticised the move as unnecessary, fearing it would give a blank cheque to government rule. The Orban government, in return, accused them of hampering efforts to defeat the virus and disregarding the lives of Hungarians by opposing the new law.
The UN, the Council of Europe, the European Parliament and rights groups have raised concerns, saying that extending his powers without limit, Orban has taken yet another step towards authoritarian control over his country.
Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a rights’ group said it was unclear how the government will use its new powers, how much the Orban government will stick to the virus crisis, and if those measures will be proportionate and necessary.
“It is concerning how those future decrees will effect civil rights, and in that regard the government has a very worrying track record,” she told EUobserver.
“It is now particularly important now that institutions, especially the European Commission, monitors the enforcement of European law, and that abuse of power leads to consequences,” Pardavi added.
EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders tweeted on Monday (30 March) that the EU executive will evaluate the emergency measures adopted by Hungary, particularly on sanctions on publishing information deemed false.
Last week the commission said that “in times of crisis, it is more important than ever that journalists can do their job properly and that “all emergency measures should be temporary in nature and address a particular crisis situation”.
Orban, who came to power 10 years ago, has had several run-ins with the EU over breaking the bloc’s rules, and his government is currently under scrutiny in the Article 7 sanctions procedure for breaching EU rules and values.
Orban has already shrugged off criticism of the new law, claiming that those who criticise it are endangering Hungary’s battle agains the pandemic.
Hungary’s justice minister, Judit Varga, told reporters on Friday that critics of the bill were “fighting imaginary demons and not dealing with reality”, AFP reported.
Daniel Hegedus, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund asked why the Hungarian government wanted to have extra powers to deal with the crisis when it already commands a two-thirds majority in parliament and controls all the key institutions.
“What takes effect in Hungary with this new law is an authoritarian rule,” he told EUobserver, adding that this is supposed to be temporary and only for the time of emergency.
But once the crisis softens and other countries start to roll back emergency measures, Hegedus said, Hungary’s government will need to be checked to ensure it also gives back its new powers.