As numerous countries introduce their own emergency measures to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, Hungary has emerged as the first democratic casualty of this crisis. On March 30, the Hungarian Parliament voted by 137 to 53 to approve the government’s demand for the power to rule by decree during the Covid-19 pandemic.
What Does the New Law Mean?
The new law means that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his governing Fidesz party can make any new laws they see fit without Hungary’s parliament needing to approve or pass them. It is not yet known how Orban may use these powers, although various people have been arrested for “fake news” in the past several weeks for what the government said is fearmongering about coronavirus and inflating the amount of cases.
Orban claims that he will use his new powers appropriately, but the leader of the Jobbik Party — Hungary’s main opposition party — Peter Jakab, claims that this law has put the entire country into quarantine. Orban’s ruling party called Fidesz used its parliamentary majority to approve of the emergency legislation. Whilst the bill may have received the blessing of Hungary’s elected parliament, that does not mean that it is a democratic law. Orban’s new decree will have wider political consequences that could result in the widespread eradication of people’s freedoms.
Nonetheless, a pro-government polling agency called Nezopont discovered that 90 per cent of the public want the emergency measures extended and 72 percent believe that the criminal code should be strengthened. This data is questionable considering it originates from a pro-government source, but it will no doubt be used by Orban to justify this new law.
This decree has no time limit to it. Therefore, this law could remain in place when the coronavirus epidemic has ended. So far, the Prime Minister has failed to specify whether this law will be removed once the number of Covid-19 cases has peaked and begins to decline. Hungary currently has 492 recorded cases of coronavirus and 16 deaths, although as mentioned critics and some citizens believe the actual number may be far higher.
A Further Blow to Democracy
Anyone accused of spreading misinformation in Hungary could face up to five years of imprisonment. Those found to be breaching the quarantine measures implemented as a means to stem the coronavirus outbreak in Hungary could face up to eight years in jail.
In a further blow to democracy, by-elections and referendums can no longer be held for as long as the state of emergency remains in place. Hungary’s next parliamentary elections are not due until 2022 and if the decree is still in effect by that time, it is more than likely that the elections will not take place.
It is unclear what the Hungarian government means by false information and if Fidesz decides what is true or false, then they could easily manipulate the context of this situation to imprison dozens of journalists and activists.
Hungary Has Embarked on the Same Path as China
In China, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan central hospital called Li Wenliang was interrogated and threatened by police for warning his classmates on WeChat about the coronavirus. He was then released and returned to work before contracting the virus himself and dying from it. China is a good example of what happens when governments are allowed to determine what the truth is, and it is tragic that Hungary has embarked upon a similar path.
Slate Magazine has gone as far as suggesting that Hungary should be thrown out of both the EU and NATO for its emergency decree. Although the Hungarian Government passed a state of emergency in 2015 that closed down media outlets which criticized its anti-refugee policies, there has to be consequences when a NATO member edges closer towards a blatant dictatorship.
Hungary is Breaching its NATO Commitments
Article 2 of the Washington Treaty states that members must strengthen their free institutions. The 1999 Membership Action Plan reiterated this point much more firmly and even specified what rules NATO members must follow. It is clear that Orban is breaking them. For example, the Prime Minister has failed to uphold his commitment to democracy since he started to close media outlets in 2015, as this is an infringement on press freedom.
Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has also warned that Hungary’s actions put the nation on a collision course with the EU.
It was always likely that some governments would use Covid-19 as an opportunity to restrict democratic freedoms further, and Hungary has become the first EU member state to do so. Hopefully, other nations do not follow their example.