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Spectre of coronavirus quarantine haunts Hungarian democracy

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban could seize effectively unchecked power if his parliament extends his "coronavirus law", experts warn
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban could seize effectively unchecked power if his parliament extends his "coronavirus law", experts warn AFP
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Budapest (AFP)

A "dictatorship" at the heart of the EU? A draft law to grant anti-coronavirus emergency measures set for adoption by Budapest has alarmed observers who fear it will hand Prime Minister Viktor Orban unlimited power.

"Hungary is a special case, nowhere else have you the kind of extraordinary measures that Orban is proposing," said Milan Nic, an expert with the Berlin-based German Council for Foreign Relations.

After declaring a state of emergency on March 11, Orban expects parliament to vote on Tuesday to allow him to extend it indefinitely and rule by decree in order to better fight COVID-19 and its impacts.

If parliament, dominated by his right-wing Fidesz party, approves the "coronavirus law" with the necessary two-thirds majority, Orban's cabinet could in theory enjoy effectively unchecked power.

"His government is already in a stronger position than anywhere else in the EU. Hungary is no longer a country of democratic checks and balances," said Nic.

The law would also enable heavy jail terms for publishers of "false information" about the virus and the government's measures, stoking new worries for Hungarian press freedoms that have dwindled under Orban.

- 'EU's first dictatorship'? -

A former anti-communist turned self-styled "illiberal" nationalist, 56-year-old Orban has also transformed Hungary's political, judicial, and constitutional landscape since he came to power in 2010.

His many clashes with the European institutions, NGOs and rights groups over migration, democracy, and the rule of law have seen Budapest sued by Brussels for "breaching" EU values.

"Until now, the system installed by Orban was seen as a 'hybrid state', neither democracy nor dictatorship," said former journalist Paul Lendvai in an editorial this week in Austria's Der Standard.

But Lendvai, a Hungarian who fled to Austria after the failed anti-Soviet 1956 uprising, wondered if the proposed powers could turn Hungary into "the EU's first dictatorship".

Orban's latest move will also pick at already raw relations between Fidesz and the European Parliament's conservative EPP grouping who have dithered over expelling the party from their ranks.

For EPP MEP Othmar Karas of Austria's conservative OeVP party, the latest furore firmly "puts Orban on the path" of authoritarian Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an ally of the Hungarian.

For his part Orban unabashedly continues to portray himself as a traditional conservative.

Responding to Council of Europe criticism of the draft law this week, Orban curtly told the body in a letter to "read the exact text of the law".

Supporters of the government argue that extending the special powers is widely supported by the population and decisive rule is necessary during the current crisis.

The government has accused the opposition of "scaremongering" and even being on the side of the virus by potentially preventing essential measures to fight it.

But according to Zoltan Fleck, a law professor at Budapest's ELTE university, the Hungarian context of a decade of strongarm rule by Orban makes rule-by-decree more perilous than elsewhere.

"In a weakened constitutional state, special powers are always very risky," he said in a recent interview.

- Attempted 'coup d'etat' claim-

Hungary is not the only state with a fragile democracy where the beefing up of government powers aimed at battling the coronavirus has lead to fears of states abusing their emergency powers.

Against the advice of several experts Poland's ultra-conservative government looks set to hold a presidential election in May, seen as a bid to capitalise on its handling of the coronavirus crisis.

In Bulgaria, the government has proposed a controversial law akin to Hungary's, mandating jail terms for those spreading fake news about infectious diseases.

Last week, United Nations experts urged states not to "abuse" security and safety measures taken in response to the pandemic.

As one opposition party slammed Orban's proposal as an attempted "coup d'etat" others urged him to compromise by fixing a time-limit on the state-of-emergency powers.

But Orban, typically, has refused to budge. "We don't need the opposition to solve this crisis," he said Monday, confident in his parliamentary majority.

According to Budapest-based think-tank Political Capital the main problem in the pandemic crisis is "not that the government does not have enough power to act.

"It is rather the restricted capacities of the healthcare sector due to having been underfunded for years," it said.

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