Hungarian parliament passes controversial legislation granting unlimited power to government

Hungarian parliament passes controversial legislation granting unlimited power to government
Parliament gives special powers to government and PM Viktor Orban to fight pandemic
By Tamas Szilagyi in Budapest March 31, 2020

Hungarian President Janos Ader signed the law that grants the government enhanced powers to contain the spread of novel coronavirus on March 30. In a statement, the president said the law was in accordance with the constitution and did not infringe on any international agreement.

Submitted by the justice minister, the bill passed with the required two-thirds of votes. The bill extends the state of emergency and grants the government power to rule by decrees while the state of emergency is in place.

It allows the government to prolong previously introduced epidemic-related amendments to the constitution for the duration of the emergency. The government will regularly brief the house speaker and group leaders on the measures taken should parliament lack a quorum. The new legislation will allow Hungary’s Constitutional Court to continue working during the state of emergency.

Opposition parties rejected the bill citing the lack of a sunset clause and fears that the government would undermine freedom of speech and press freedom under the guise of actions against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leftist parties and centrist Jobbik proposed a 90-day time limit for the validity of the decrees.

The government argued that setting a deadline for how long the measures would last wouldn’t be a good idea, because by the time the National Assembly had to support the decrees again it might be in a quandary, therefore Hungary might reach a chaotic, illegal state exactly at the peak of the outbreak.

Among the measures, flouting quarantine regulations is punishable by up to three years in prison. Also, anyone who disseminates fake news or distorted real information that could lead to social unrest and prevent the "protection of the public" will be punishable by one to five years in prison.

Civil rights groups and NGO underlined that the bill did not meet the democratic and constitutional requirements of the special legal order. They said the criminal restriction on the freedom of expression without clear normative content is unconstitutional even in a state of emergency.

President Ader insisted the new powers were not open-ended and would only last until the end of the epidemic. 

He said the government’s powers were limited to preventing, handling and eliminating the spread of the epidemic, as well as to mitigating its effects.