As Orban’s special powers end, new law raises doubt over Hungary’s democracy

EU is investigating Hungarian government for violating rule-of-law norms as PM’s sweeping powers end

(FILES) In this file photo taken on June 11, 2020 Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses a joint press conference following the Visegrad Group (V4) meeting in Lednice, Czech Republic.   / AFP / Michal Cizek / TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY PETER MURPHY
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Hungary’s parliament on Tuesday approved ending an emergency status that gave Prime Minister Viktor Orban sweeping powers to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, but passed a new law that drew fresh criticism over the country’s democracy.

Parliament voted unanimously to end the “state of danger” that has allowed the right-wing leader to rule by decree since March. The original coronavirus protection act, approved on March 30, didn’t have an end date and opponents saw it as an attempt by Mr Orban to extend his control over the eastern European country.

The emergency status is due to end at midnight on Wednesday night.

Critics have said the sweeping measures created a precedent for a future power grab by the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim prime minister to limit freedoms.

However, government officials have chided opponents of the emergency powers, saying that Hungarians were in “hysteria” and demanding an apology for being attacked.

“Those who cried dictatorship at home and abroad can now extend their apologies,” Mr Orban said on Facebook after the vote on Tuesday.

However, a new bill also approved that evening raised more questions of whether Hungary is moving away from democratic rule.

The 246-page law created an additional type of emergency, for health, enabling the government to rule by decree without consent of Parliament. The legislation will also make it easier for the Cabinet to restrict rights during a state of emergency.

The EU is currently investigating Hungary for violating rule-of-law norms and leaders in the union have repeatedly raised concerns about Mr Orban’s government. A group of 13 member states expressed "deep concern" over the extraordinary powers in March, and feared they may threaten "democracy and fundamental rights".

Hungary has been a member of the bloc since 2004 but its government has drawn criticism for its lack of solidarity with other European countries and its increasingly populist and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The lifting of the state of emergency coincides with the nation’s easing of coronavirus restrictions.

In Hungary, 4,078 people have contracted Covid-19 and 565 people have died from it, according to the latest figures from Johns Hopkins University tracker. It is a much lower number than many EU nations, especially in Western Europe.