Hungary’s state of emergency law is a ‘blank cheque’ to Orban, critics say

A soldier and an MP patrol in the main square of Debrecen, Hungary, 20 March 2020. The patrol is deployed to keep up public safety and order during the time of the epidemy of novel coronavirus. [ZSOLT CZEGLEDI/EPA/EFE]

*Updates with Council of Europe comment

A draft Hungarian law allowing the government to rule by decree during the state of emergency caused by the coronavirus pandemic risks staying in place indefinitely, the opposition has warned.

The Hungarian parliament is due to consider a draft law that would keep the decrees issued under the state of emergency in force until further notice.

The draft law would ban by-elections and referenda, as well as increase penalties for breaking the quarantine and spreading misinformation.

The draft text, which doesn’t foresee a role for the parliament, was proposed late on on Friday (20 March) by Judit Varga, justice minister of the ruling right-wing Fidesz party.

Currently, decrees issued during the emergency need parliamentary approval to stay in force after 15 days.

Under the proposed law, dubbed the ‘Enabling Act’, spreading “false fact or true facts distorted in a way” that could “impede or thwart” the effectiveness of defence measures  against the coronavirus becomes punishable of 1 to 5 years of imprisonment.

The draft text also increases penalties for breaking the quarantine ordered by authorities. Sentences can now go up to 8 years of imprisonment if the actions cause a death and up to 5 years if committed in groups.

The opposition vowed to oppose the law in its current form despite a broad consensus that the state of emergency should be prolonged.

“There is no reason to give a lifelong mandate to Viktor Orbán, because that is called a kingdom,” Jakab Péter, leader of the far-right Jobbik told Magyar Hang, a political magazine.

“We cannot give a blank cheque to the government,” said Schmuck Erzsébet, the co-president of the Hungary’s green party, LMP.

But the opposition could quickly be overruled by the ruling Fidesz party, which enjoys a super-majority in Parliament. If the other parties do not support bringing the vote forward as early as Tuesday (24 March), Fidesz will pass the proposal following the ordinary legislative procedure on 31 March, said the leader of the Parliament’s ruling group, Máté Kocsis, in an interview with Hír Tv.

This shouldn’t be a problem for Fidesz, which currently commands a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian Parliament.

“The irresponsible behaviour of the opposition, which rejects the passage of this law, practically hinders effective defence,” said government spokesperson Zoltán Kovács on Sunday (23 March).

Council of Europe human rights chief, Dunja Mijatović, said the Enabling Act “would grant sweeping powers to the government to rule by decree without a clear cut-off date and safeguards”.

“Even in an emergency, it is necessary to observe the Constitution, ensure parliamentary and judicial scrutiny, and right to information,” she added.

Hungary declared a national state of emergency on 11 March. This was followed by the shutting of universities, and banning of large gatherings as well as closures of theatres, libraries and cinemas.

Primary and secondary schools closed on 16 March although classes continue online.

By Sunday (22 March) evening, the number of citizens infected with the coronavirus had reached 131, an increase of 46 confirmed cases over the weekend. The total death toll has risen to 6, while the number of recovered patients is 16, with a further 115 people in quarantine.

Military personnel deployed to companies

Hungary will deploy special military task forces to monitor the operations of 140 mostly state-owned companies providing critical services during the coronavirus pandemic, Defence Minister Tibor Benkő said late on Wednesday (18 March), Reuters reported.

The newly created task forces, consisting of several soldiers, police officers and disaster unit workers, will provide regular briefings about the companies to the defence ministry, Benkő told public television.

An initial list of 71 companies was released on Thursday (19 March) when the task forces began their operation at some of the companies.

Among them are MOL oil and gas energy group, in which the state owns a 25% stake, Paks Nuclear Power Plant, Budapest Stock Exchange, Auchan Hungary and Robert Bosch LLC.

“One of the tasks of these task forces among others is to ensure the operation and safety of these Hungarian companies, these critically important Hungarian companies,” Benkő said.

[Edited by Georgi Gotev and Frédéric Simon]

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