A coronavirus political bombshell went off in the heart of Europe, grabbing world headlines early this week, after Hungary's parliament voted to allow Prime Minister Viktor Orban sweeping emergency powers deemed necessary to fighting the pandemic.
The bill approved by the nationalist government givens Orban the right to rule by decree, without having to consult lawmakers or other branches of government. It overwhelmingly passed 138 votes in favor with 53 against — easily past the required two-thirds majority.
It predictably evoked immediate backlash from leaders across Europe and the West, given he's already long been under scrutiny for allegedly weakening Hungary's judicial and parliamentary systems in what critics have long complained is a bid for greater 'authoritarian' control. From the start, it should be remembered, he was loathed by EU technocrats for rejecting the so-called open door response to migrants and refugees in 2015.
The new emergency powers legislation is now in effect as of Tuesday. Crucially, Orban alone has the ability to decide when the emergency powers end. The prime minister sought to assure parliament and the public during Monday's vote: "When this emergency ends, we will give back all powers, without exception."
He said the unprecedented legislation was necessary as "Changing our lives is now unavoidable," according to prior statements. "Everyone has to leave their comfort zone. This law gives the government the power and means to defend Hungary."
Though Hungary has significantly fewer cases than most other European states at over 440, including 15 deaths, it reportedly has lagged behind in testing, with fears its health care system is too weak to handle a serious outbreak.
Critics of Orban and his Fidesz party, though hugely popular within the country, have slammed the new emergency powers' legislation as an egregious betrayal of free speech among citizens, given authorities can hand out up to five year prison sentences for "spreading false information".
CNN listed the most controversial elements of the new law as follows:
The suspension of parliament, punishments for journalists if the government believes their coronavirus reporting is not accurate, and heavier penalties for violating quarantine regulations are all made possible by the order. No elections or referendums can be held while it is in place.
The law says specifically that "a person who, during the period of a special legal order and in front of a large audience, states or disseminates any untrue fact or any misrepresented true fact that is capable of hindering or preventing the efficiency of protection is guilty of a felony and shall be punished by imprisonment for one to five years."
Orban shot back, however, telling critics in a national radio broadcast this week: "We cannot react quickly if there are debates and lengthy legislative and lawmaking procedures. And in times of crisis and epidemic, the ability to respond rapidly can save lives."
"The Government is not asking for anything extraordinary," he added. "It is asking for the ability to rapidly enact certain measures. We don't want to enact measures that the Government has no general right to enact — we simply want to do so swiftly."
Despite other European countries in some cases enacting similar drastic and draconian coronavirus measures involving the curtailing of individual rights and movement, EU officials and pundits dramatically declared it essentially the 'death of democracy' in central Europe.