Two members of the U.S. Congress have condemned new legislation in Hungary giving right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban sweeping powers under the country's state of emergency to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Representative Eliot Engel (Democrat-New York), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Senator Jim Risch (Republican-Idaho), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said it was particularly disturbing that a NATO ally and EU member would implement what Engel called a "blatant power grab" that allows Orban "to rule by decree like a dictator."
Referring to new powers, the Hungarian prime minister received amid an indefinite state of emergency, Engel added in a statement on March 30 that it was "particularly egregious that...Orban attempts to capitalize on the suffering of his own citizens for personal gain."
"Such a serious affront to democracy anywhere is outrageous, and particularly within a NATO ally and EU member," he said. "I call on Prime Minister Orban to abandon this effort and focus on counter-COVID measures that actually prioritize keeping the Hungarian people safe."
Both Engel and Risch noted that the legislation has no so-called "sunset clause" specifying a date when Orban’s additional powers would expire.
Risch said emergencies “should never be used as an excuse to weaken democratic institutions” and added that the Central European country ”should carefully consider its actions in this crisis and maintain the democratic core we all share.”
Engel and Risch join a chorus of criticism of the legislation warning that the bill's open-ended powers to rule by decree could be a major setback to democratic gains in the former communist country.
One expert on international law called it a "constitutional lockdown" on Hungary and its 10 million citizens and suggested that the avenues to help from the European Union were limited.
Orban's nationalist-populist Fidesz party has dominated Hungarian politics for a decade and holds a two-thirds majority in the current legislature.
The bill, passed on March 30 with 137 votes in favor and 53 votes against, allows the government to extend indefinitely the state of emergency declared on March 11 and its associated powers of rule by decree, doing away with the current requirement for lawmakers to approve any extension.
"My biggest problem is that this is a potential constitutional lockdown, that we are going to be stuck because of this structure in which the government may end the state of emergency but the legal effects adopted during the state of emergency are going to stay in effect as long as the parliament does not end them -- and the parliament is under no legal obligation to end them anyway," Tamas Lattmann, an international lawyer specializing in extraordinary legal regimes who teaches at the University of New York in Prague, told RFE/RL after the March 30 vote.
He said Hungarian law already gave the government broad powers under the state of emergency that don't conflict with the constitution, including allowing it to set aside existing legislation.
On March 29, four Hungarian civil society organizations, including the Helsinki Committee rights group, called on the government to introduce a sunset clause.
Otherwise, Orban will "have a completely unrestricted mandate for the government...the current draft...basically gives an open-ended carte-blanche mandate,” said Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.
If the Fidesz-dominated parliament never decided to curb Orban's powers, Lattmann warned, "even the Constitutional Court cannot do anything, because the Constitutional Court cannot analyze something which is not being done by the parliament."
"So this is a constitutional stalemate in the end, and it's extremely dangerous," said Lattmann, who was an associate professor at the National University of Public Service in Budapest for nearly two decades.
Since 2010, the 56-year-old Orban has consolidated his power by diminishing the independence of Hungary’s courts and media.
He has also restricted the activities of nongovernmental organizations, among other actions for which the country has been criticized at home and in Brussels.
Defenders of the bill have said the powers are necessary to keep the country safe from the mounting toll of the COVID-19 epidemic, which has infected more than 780,000 people worldwide and 447 people in Hungary. Fifteen people in Hungary had been killed by the coronavirus as of March 30, according to data published by Johns Hopkins University.
"The extraordinary measures are related to the pandemic, to its prevention, its elimination, and the damaging economic consequences," AP quoted Csaba Domotor, a deputy minister in Orban's cabinet office, as saying.
"A time limit cannot be declared in this situation because there is no one...who can say how many months of struggle we have to prepare for."
'Fake News' Provision
Among the law’s other provisions is allowing a criminal punishment of up to five years for anyone spreading "fake news" about the coronavirus pandemic.
Justice Minister Judit Varga has sought to quell fears about the unprecedented powers the legislation extends to Orban, telling journalists on March 27 that critics opposing the bill were "fighting imaginary demons and not dealing with reality."
Members of the European Parliament in Brussels have called for an inquiry by the European Commission.
“Viktor Orban must not be given a carte blanche to further empower himself and strip away Hungarian citizens’ democratic rights under the auspices of tackling the coronavirus,” Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, a French member of the European Parliament told The Guardian daily before the vote.
But Lattmann warned that any EU route to try to thwart what some have described as a "power grab" by Orban under the current situation could prove a dead end.
"The question is really problematic because the European Commission may practice and exercise its inquiry and control functions in questions which are related to EU competencies or the application of EU law," Lattmann said. "And the Hungarian government is going to surely argue that the coronavirus situation, pandemic situation, is not something that the European Union would have competence [in]."