The bill was approved by Orbán's Fidesz party and other government supporters by 137 votes to 53. It needed 133 votes to pass.

President János Áder signed the bill into law shortly after its approval in parliament and it will take effect from March 31.

The legislation has been criticised by opposition parties, international institutions and civic groups for failing include an expiration date for the government's ability to rule by decree.

It also includes measures against false information which have raised concerns they could be used by the government to muzzle independent media.

"The extraordinary measures are related to the pandemic, to its prevention, its elimination and the prevention of the damaging economic consequences," said Csaba Domotor, a deputy minister in Orbán's Cabinet Office. "A time limit cannot be declared in this situation because there is no one ... who can say how many months of struggle we have to prepare for."

Opposition lawmakers said they were willing to give the government the requested powers, but only if they were set for a certain period, with the possibility of extensions.

"The opposition is united on the issue of giving the government powers which are significantly more extensive than the authority in the Constitution," said Tamas Harangozo, a lawmaker with the opposition Socialist Party." The opposition's request is that "the government accept that it can only do this within time limits."

The human rights chief at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe also expressed concerns about the new legislation.

"It is clear that states need to act swiftly in order to protect their populations from the COVID-19 pandemic, and I understand that extraordinary measures may be required to do so," said Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir, director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

"However, 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."

The opposition criticised as insufficient the government's economic measures meant to alleviate the effects of the pandemic. While Orbán has announced numerous tax breaks and the postponement until 2021 of debt payments by households and companies, critics have cited the lack of direct payments to employers to save jobs. Opposition parties have also called on salaries to be doubled for workers in the health sector.

Orbán said the government would announce a package of economic measures on April 6 or 7 to boost growth. He said it would be the largest action of its kind in Hungarian history.

A rights group known in part for its advocacy for refugees and asylum-seekers said that checks on the government's rule by decree would now have to come from external institutions to a greater extent.

"Parliament, as the legislative body representing the people, practically will be in recess from now on. Law will be essentially made by the government," the Hungarian Helsinki Committee said. "In the absence of the proper function of parliament, civic control of the government and its institutions — especially by the press, civic groups, and human rights watchdogs — becomes more valuable."

The opposition parties were also critical of the government's refusal to consider allowing lawmakers to vote from home.

Hungary's Constitution does not allow parliamentary sessions or votes to be held via teleconferencing or other remote methods and the government said it has no plans for a Constitutional amendment needed to create the option.

"If we're asking the whole country to stay home, then the Hungarian parliament should be able to do the same if the virus situation justifies it," said independent lawmaker Bernadett Szel.

A decree setting restrictions on leaving home, with exceptions for going to work or for essential needs like food shopping, took effect on March 28.

Hungary declared a state of emergency on March 11 due to the spread of coronavirus. So far 447 cases have been confirmed in the country, with 15 deaths.


Britain's Guardian newspaper criticised the new legislation in an editorial, saying:

In functioning democracies, any request by a leader for "emergency powers" is rightly subjected to scrutiny. If granted, a suspension of normal constitutional practice will generally come with a strict time limit attached. Boris Johnson's coronavirus bill, which gives sweeping new powers to ministers, was passed last week with the proviso that MPs would vote every six months on whether it should be renewed. In France, President Emmanuel Macron's more wide-ranging and draconian emergency measures have a lifespan of two months.

It should come as little surprise that the situation is different in Hungary. With characteristic ruthlessness, the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has taken the political maxim "never let a crisis go to waste" and run with it. In recent years, he has consolidated his power in office by curbing the independence of Hungary's courts and media, and restricting the activities of NGOs. This week he will almost certainly acquire dictatorial powers. The Hungarian parliament, dominated by his Fidesz party, is expected to rubber-stamp the "protecting against the coronavirus" law, ushering in an indefinite period of what amounts to one-man rule in an EU member state.

The new law allows Orbán to rule by decree, alone and unchallenged. The prime minister will be able to override all existing legislation. Elections will not take place. Information on government actions will be provided to the speaker of the Hungarian parliament and the leaders of parliamentary groups.

The spreading of "false" information that could lead to social unrest and prevent the "protection of the public" will become a crime punishable by a lengthy prison sentence. Some of Orbán's cheerleaders in the media have already suggested approvingly that this provision could lead to the arrest of critical journalists.

There are well-grounded fears that these powers will be used to further exert and extend the government's grip on the institutions of Hungarian civil society, and cast critics of government policy as unpatriotic at a time of national crisis. The decision as to when the current emergency is over will be in the hands of Orbán's Fidesz MPs. A compliant parliament may eventually choose to make permanent some of the arrangements introduced in the context of a global health crisis. "Emergency" measures introduced in 2016 to restrict the rights of asylum seekers are still in place.

Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic requires harsh measures which curtail individual freedoms. Orbán is not the only autocratic leader to have spotted the chance for a power grab. Azerbaijan's strongman, Ilham Aliyev, has stepped up the harassment of opposition groups. Israel's beleaguered PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, used an emergency decree to delay the start of his trial on corruption charges, marginalised parliament and moved to enact unprecedented surveillance measures. It now seems possible that a national unity government will be formed with Mr Netanyahu's main political rival, Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White party. Ominously, in the United States, Donald Trump has begun to consider himself a "wartime president".

MEPs have called on the European Commission to launch an inquiry into Orbán's new law. But it will be in place long before that begins. This will be another bad week for Hungarian democracy.


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