On Monday, Hungary’s parliament passed a controversial bill that gave Orban sweeping emergency powers for an indefinite period of time. Parliament is closed, future elections were called off, existing laws can be suspended and the prime minister is now entitled to rule by decree. Opposition lawmakers had tried to set a time limit on the legislation but failed. Orban’s commanding two-thirds parliamentary majority made his new powers a fait accompli.

The measures were invoked as part of the government’s response to the global pandemic. Hungary had reported close to 450 cases as of Monday evening, and Orban has already cast the threat of the virus in politically convenient terms, labeling it a menace carried by unwelcome foreign migrants and yet more justification for his aggressive efforts to police the country’s borders. “Changing our lives is now unavoidable,” Orban told lawmakers last week when justifying the proposed bill. “Everyone has to leave their comfort zone. This law gives the government the power and means to defend Hungary.”

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

“This bill, once signed into law, will almost certainly put even greater pressure on what’s left of Hungary’s independent media,” noted Emily Tamkin of the New Statesman. “One man’s misinformation is another man’s report on increasing illiberalism.”

Orban’s many detractors elsewhere in Europe see this gambit as a potential pathway to dictatorship. Ahead of the parliamentary vote, leading figures in Brussels and Strasbourg warned against an “indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency” that would further undermine Hungarian democracy. On Monday, former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi tweeted what many liberal Europeans feel — that Hungary’s illiberal slide threatens the values of the European Union as a whole and could merit its expulsion from the bloc.

Orban and his allies have rejected criticism from those who have characterized the new law as anti-democratic, insisting that the measures are temporary and will end once the threat of the pandemic subsides. Others aren’t so sure.

Rohac, writing in the opinion pages of The Washington Post, continued: “Hungary’s previous moves toward authoritarianism were disguised as a necessary reaction to outside threats: foreign corporate interests during the financial crisis, ‘cosmopolitan elites’ during the refugee crisis of 2016, or, whenever the occasion demands, the philanthropist George Soros (a staple of Orban’s nativist playbook).”

Hungary’s prime minister is not alone in exploiting this public health crisis for his political advantage. His kindred spirit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leveraged the threat of the pandemic into what critics branded a parliamentary “coup,” delaying his own trial on corruption charges while potentially securing a new political mandate to return to power.

“In states of emergency, there may be a need to temporarily derogate from certain rights and procedures but any such measures need to be temporary, proportionate and absolutely necessary from a public health perspective,” Lydia Gall, an Eastern Europe researcher with Human Rights Watch, told The Washington Post, referring to Orban’s pursuit of unchecked power. “Vaguely formulated provisions, as can be seen in the state of emergency legislation adopted, do not fulfill those criteria and certainly not when they are set for an indefinite period of time.”





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