In functioning democracies, any request by a leader for “emergency powers” is rightly subjected to scrutiny. If granted, a suspension of normal constitutional practice will generally come with a strict time limit attached. Boris Johnson’s coronavirus bill, which gives sweeping new powers to ministers, was passed last week with the proviso that MPs would vote every six months on whether it should be renewed. In France, President Emmanuel Macron’s more wide-ranging and draconian emergency measures have a lifespan of two months.
It should come as little surprise that the situation is different in Hungary. With characteristic ruthlessness, the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has taken the political maxim “never let a crisis go to waste” and run with it. In recent years, he has consolidated his power in office by curbing the independence of Hungary’s courts and media, and restricting the activities of NGOs. This week he will almost certainly acquire dictatorial powers. The Hungarian parliament, dominated by his Fidesz party, is expected to rubber-stamp the “protecting against the coronavirus” law, ushering in an indefinite period of what amounts to one-man rule in an EU member state.
The new law allows Mr Orbán to rule by decree, alone and unchallenged. The prime minister will be able to override all existing legislation. Elections will not take place. Information on government actions will be provided to the speaker of the Hungarian parliament and the leaders of parliamentary groups.
The spreading of “false” information that could lead to social unrest and prevent the “protection of the public” will become a crime punishable by a lengthy prison sentence. Some of Mr Orbán’s cheerleaders in the media have already suggested approvingly that this provision could lead to the arrest of critical journalists.
There are well-grounded fears that these powers will be used to further exert and extend the government’s grip on the institutions of Hungarian civil society, and cast critics of government policy as unpatriotic at a time of national crisis. The decision as to when the current emergency is over will be in the hands of Mr Orbán’s Fidesz MPs. A compliant parliament may eventually choose to make permanent some of the arrangements introduced in the context of a global health crisis. “Emergency” measures introduced in 2016 to restrict the rights of asylum seekers are still in place.
Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic requires harsh measures which curtail individual freedoms. Mr Orbán is not the only autocratic leader to have spotted the chance for a power grab. Azerbaijan’s strongman, Ilham Aliyev, has stepped up the harassment of opposition groups. Israel’s beleaguered PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, used an emergency decree to delay the start of his trial on corruption charges, marginalised parliament and moved to enact unprecedented surveillance measures. It now seems possible that a national unity government will be formed with Mr Netanyahu’s main political rival, Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White party. Ominously, in the United States, Donald Trump has begun to consider himself a “wartime president”.
MEPs have called on the European commission to launch an inquiry into Mr Orbán’s new law. But it will be in place long before that begins. This will be another bad week for Hungarian democracy.