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Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban in Brussels, Belgium on February 21, 2020 (Photo: Riccardo Pareggiani/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

'A Harrowing Warning' to All as Hungary Hands Far-Right Leader Dictatorial Powers Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

"We could have a parallel epidemic of authoritarian and repressive measures following close if not on the heels of a health epidemic."

Jake Johnson

Human rights groups and activists issued dire warnings about the state of democracy in Hungary—and the rest of the world—after the nation's parliament on Monday approved a sweeping emergency law handing far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orbán dictatorial powers as the European country battles the coronavirus pandemic.

"I worry for Roma, the Jewish community, the press, and a generation of young folks. Please pay attention."
—Jacob Labendz, Youngstown State University

The new law indefinitely suspends elections and parliament, imposes up to five years in prison for anyone who intentionally spreads what the government classifies as misinformation, and gives Orbán the authority to suspend laws by decree as he works to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. The law easily passed Hungary's parliament, which is dominated by Orbán's far-right Fidesz party, by a vote of 137 to 53.

"Outrageous—and something we must all take as a harrowing warning," author and environmentalist Naomi Klein tweeted in response to the law, which does not contain a sunset clause.

Orbán insisted Monday that he "will give back all powers, without exception," when the coronavirus emergency subsides, but human rights groups warned that the prime minister could do incalculable damage with his virtually unlimited authority in the meantime—and may not give it up so easily when the crisis is over. Orbán has already used the COVID-19 pandemic, which has officially infected nearly 500 people in Hungary, to ramp up xenophobic attacks on migrants.

"Throughout history, authoritarian leaders have used moments of crisis to seize unchecked power. Hungary's Orban is the latest example. Now more than ever we must stand up for democracy and rule of law."
—Sen. Bernie Sanders
"This bill creates an indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency and give Viktor Orbán and his government carte blanche to restrict human rights," David Vig, Amnesty International's Hungary director, said in a statement Monday.

"During his years as prime minister, Viktor Orbán has overseen a rollback of human rights in Hungary, stoking up hostility towards marginalized groups, and attempting to muzzle Hungary's critical voices," added Vig. "Allowing his government to rule by decree is likely to speed this rollback."

Jacob Labendz, director of the Center for Judaic and Holocaust Studies at Youngstown State University, tweeted that he is "terrified and deeply saddened for Hungary today."

"I worry for Roma, the Jewish community, the press, and a generation of young folks," Labendz said. "Please pay attention. I fear that this may spread within some of the [European Union]."

Hungary's parliament is not the first legislative body to hand its leader sweeping emergency powers as global coronavirus cases continue to rise. As the New York Times reported Monday:

In Britain, ministers have what a critic called "eye-watering" power to detain people and close borders. Israel's prime minister has shut down courts and begun an intrusive surveillance of citizens. Chile has sent the military to public squares once occupied by protesters. Bolivia has postponed elections.

In the United States, the Justice Department asked Congress for sweeping new powers, including a plan to eliminate legal protections for asylum seekers and detain people indefinitely without trial. After Republicans and Democrats balked, the department scaled back and submitted a more modest proposal.

Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, told the Times that governments often have a set of desired emergency powers "ready to go" in anticipation of an "opportunity" like a global pandemic.

"We could have a parallel epidemic of authoritarian and repressive measures following close if not on the heels of a health epidemic," Aolain warned.

In a column for Esquire Monday, Charles Pierce called Hungary "the canary in the coal mine when it comes to collapsing democracy."

"You'd have to be a fool or naive to trust Orban with anything more powerful than a butter knife. And, of course, he has a big fan in the White House," Pierce wrote. "So far, [the Trump] administration's response to the pandemic has been to bungle it, to profiteer as best it can, and to enact long-held conservative priorities as far as dismantling environmental and consumer protection."

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, tweeted Monday that "throughout history, authoritarian leaders have used moments of crisis to seize unchecked power."

"Hungary's Orban is the latest example," said Sanders. "Now more than ever we must stand up for democracy and rule of law."


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