Hungary's Orban gets sweeping new powers in coronavirus fight

Critics say prime minister is cementing his position more than battling virus

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban replies to an oppositional MP during a question and answer session of the Parliament in Budapest, Hungary, Budapest, Hungary, Monday, March 30, 2020. Hungary's parliament on Monday approved a bill giving Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government extraordinary powers during the coronavirus pandemic, without setting an end date for their expiration.  The bill was approved by Orban's Fidesz party and other government supporters by 137 votes in favor to 53 against. (Zoltan Mathe/MTI via AP)
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Hungary's Parliament on Monday endorsed a bill giving nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban sweeping new powers he says he needs to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Critics  have condemned the "anti-coronavirus defence law", saying it gives Mr Orban unnecessary and unlimited power, and is a way to cement his position rather than battle the virus.

After declaring a state of emergency on March 11, the law gives him the power to indefinitely rule by decree until the government decides the emergency is over.

It also removes the need for MPs to approve any extensions to decrees. Elections cannot be held during the emergency period.

The law introduces jail terms of up to five years for anyone spreading what the government determines are "falsehoods" about the virus or the measures taken against it, prompting worries about press freedom.

The measures come into effect as of midnight on Monday.

The Parliament, where Mr Orban's Fidesz party has a two-thirds majority, passed the bill by 137 votes to 53. It required a two-thirds majority to pass.

"At the end of the emergency, all powers will be fully restored" to Parliament, Mr Orban said after the vote, dismissing opposition fears of a long-running period of rule by decree.

He told Hungarian national Kossuth radio last week that he planned to do away with “lengthy legislative and law-making procedures” to “respond rapidly” and save lives.

The vote marked another controversial milestone in Mr Orban's decade in power.

Since the self-styled "illiberal" nationalist won power in 2010, he has changed Hungary's political, judicial and constitutional landscape.

Mr Orban, 56, has frequently clashed with European institutions, charities and rights groups.

The EU is suing Hungary for "breaching" the bloc's values, in charges fiercely denied by Budapest.

The EU's Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said on Monday that the European Commission "evaluates the emergency measures taken by member states with regard to fundamental rights".

This was "particularly the case for the law passed today", Mr Reynders said.

Among the international bodies expressing concern before the bill became law were the UN Human Rights office, the Council of Europe, and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Mr Orban has accused his critics of alarmism and has told "European nit-pickers" to let Hungary defend itself against Covid-19.

Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga said last week that the Constitutional Court could provide oversight, while Parliament could revoke the decrees at any time.

The opposition was "fighting imaginary demons and not dealing with reality", Ms Varga said.

Last week, opposition MPs said they did not trust Mr Orban not to abuse indefinite special powers.

They refused to support fast-tracking the bill without time limits.

His opponents gave as an example the "state of crisis caused by mass migration", which Fidesz declared in 2016.

It is still in place, despite migration numbers to Hungary having fallen sharply since.

Akos Hadhazy, an independent MP, said Mr Orban did not need any extraordinary powers because his party already controlled parliament.

Mr Hadhazy said the ruling party had set a "trap for the opposition".

"The press and non-government organisations now have a particularly important role to play in controlling the government," the Hungarian Helsinki Committee refugee rights group said.

Mr Orban has primarily blamed migrants for taking the virus to Hungary.

The first two confirmed coronavirus cases in the EU member state of 10 million were Iranian students.

Hungary has since reported 447 cases with 15 deaths. More than 13,300 tests have been carried out, the government said on Monday.