Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban walks near other representatives during a vote about the government's bill on the protection against the new coronavirus COVID-19 at the plenary session of the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest on March 30 2020. Picture: AFP/ZOLTAN MATHE
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban walks near other representatives during a vote about the government's bill on the protection against the new coronavirus COVID-19 at the plenary session of the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest on March 30 2020. Picture: AFP/ZOLTAN MATHE

Hungary’s parliament handed Prime Minister Viktor Orban the right to rule by decree indefinitely, effectively putting the EU democracy under his sole command for as long as he sees fit.

While governments around the world assume emergency powers to fight the coronavirus, locking down all aspects of everyday life and shutting borders, few democracies have given their governments such latitude without an end date.

Hungary’s ruling party legislators overrode the objections of the opposition in a vote on Monday, handing Orban the right to bypass the assembly on any law. The constitutional court, which Orban has stacked with loyalists, will be the main body capable of reviewing government actions.

“I don’t know of another democracy where the government has effectively asked for a free hand to do anything for however long,” said Renata Uitz, director of the comparative constitutional law programme at Central European University in Budapest.

The emergency-rule law “poses no threat to democracy,” Orban told legislators after the vote. The legislation’s scope is “limited” and envisions only “necessary and proportionate measures” to fight Covid-19, justice minister Judit Varga told journalists on Friday. The cabinet has already been granted emergency powers and the legislation actually gives parliament the right to end that, she said.

Varga asked journalists not to “distort” facts, a crime which the legislation makes punishable by as long as five years in jail for anyone deemed hampering the fight against the virus.

The country’s currency, the forint, tumbled towards a record low against the euro on Monday, weakened in part by the dovish policies of the central bank.

Faith in Orban to exercise restraint is running low. In the past decade, the nationalist leader has used supermajorities in parliament to dismantle checks and balances, build the EU’s largest state propaganda machine and crack down on civil society to silence dissent. The EU is probing the erosion of rule of law, though it has lacked the will to rein in Orban as populism flourishes across the bloc. The EU’s executive will review Hungary’s emergency rule law to see if it is in line with its norms, Politico reported Friday, citing justice commissioner Didier Reynders.

Orban’s track record indicates he may not give up the powers quickly. His anti-immigrant Fidesz party has continuously renewed a “state of emergency for mass immigration”, announced after the 2015 refugee crisis, even after the number of asylum seekers arriving in Hungary plunged.

Human pandemic

The law approved on Monday is for the “prevention, handling and elimination of the human pandemic as well as to prevent and blunt its harmful effects”, which legal experts said may allow Fidesz to keep the emergency measures in place as long as they see potential effects of the virus. By-elections and referendums cannot be held. There is no word on national elections, with the next parliamentary ballot due in 2022.

Orban is portraying the opposition, which had pleaded with the premier to introduce a renewable 90-day sunset clause, as deserting the country at a time when unity should have prevailed. It may help him deflect blame for failing to fix Hungary’s underfunded hospitals, which are at risk of being overwhelmed faster than health care systems in some other EU countries. Opposition parties have for years criticised Orban for splurging on vanity projects, including oversized soccer stadiums.

“In light of previous experiences with authoritarian dynamics in Hungary, once passed, the enabling act will not be rescinded anytime soon,” said Daniel Hegedus, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.

Bloomberg