Today, Hungary's parliament voted by 137 to 53 to enact the new COVID-19 bill, which apparently grants Prime Minister Viktor Orbán sweeping powers, in order to allow Hungary to deal with the crisis. The move, which includes no time limit on the extraordinary powers has been criticised by the Council of Europe; the Secretary General wrote in an letter to Mr Orbán that although "drastic measures" need to be taken:

An indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency cannot guarantee that the basic principles of democracy will be observed and that the emergency measures restricting fundamental human rights are strictly proportionate to the threat which they are supposed to counter.

Although there has been much criticism of the bill, I have been unable to find precise details of the powers which it grants to Orbán and his government. What specific rights are being curtailed that the bill's critics find objectionable?


The implications seem to be indefinite near-dictatorship for so long as Viktor Orbán chooses. For those who are interested, an (unofficial, I believe) English translation of the bill can be found here.

Under the new legislation, by-elections are suspended and Orbán can rule by decree, suspend enforcement of laws, and arrest people for years under vague charges of "publicizing distorted facts" or "violating quarantine":

The Hungarian parliament on Monday voted by a two-thirds majority to allow the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree without a set time limit.

While the new legislation remains in place, no by-elections can be held and Orbán's government will be able to suspend the enforcement of certain laws. Plus, individuals who publicize what are viewed as untrue or distorted facts — and which could interfere with the protection of the public, or could alarm or agitate a large number of people — now face several years in jail.

Though advertised as "emergency powers", these new powers will last indefinitely and can only be removed with the approval of the President:

The new rules can only be lifted with another two-thirds vote of the parliament and a presidential signature

Hungary’s Viktor Orbán wins vote to rule by decree - Politico

The New York Times provides similar information:

In Hungary, a new law has granted Prime Minister Viktor Orban the power to sidestep Parliament and suspend existing laws. Mr. Orban, who declared a state of emergency this month, now has the sole power to end the emergency. ...

The law will permanently amend two articles of the criminal code that will further limit freedom of expression and penalize people for breaching quarantine orders. It will also suspend all elections and referendums.

Under one measure, anyone who disseminates information that could hinder the government’s response to the epidemic could face up to five years in prison. The legislation gives broad latitude to the public prosecutor to determine what counts as distorted or false information.

For Autocrats, Coronavirus Is a Chance to Grab Even More Power - The New York Times

The Independent Hungarian newspaper Index has more detail.

The government can expand emergency declarations indefinitely without Parliamentary approval:

The new law allows the government to make these extensions themselves indefinitely, or at least until Parliament decides to revoke this authorisation before the state of emergency is over

It gives the government vague and expansive powers to arrest people for "false or distorting" speech:

The new law also introduces a vaguely worded new paragraph to the already existing offence of scaremongering in the Criminal Code, which opponents of the law say could threaten critical press:

"Anyone who, under a special legal order, in public, utters or spreads statements known to be false or statements distorting true facts shall be punishable by imprisonment between 1 to 5 years if done in a manner capable of hindering or derailing the effectiveness of the response effort."

And it give them the power to suspend laws and cancel elections:

The Coronavirus Act also introduces a number of other changes to the constitutional order of the country:

  • The government will be allowed to take steps beyond the extraordinary measures listed in the Disaster Relief Act and suspend the application of certain laws by decree if necessary and proportional to protect citizens' health, life, property, rights, and to secure the stability of the economy in connection with the pandemic. ...
  • No local or national elections or referendums can be held until the end of the state of emergency, elections and referendums already scheduled will take place after the special legal order ends. Municipal councils dissolved during the state of emergency stay in place until the end of the special legal order.

Hungarian Coronavirus Act passes, granting Viktor Orbán unprecedented emergency powers - Index

  • 12
    For context this has to be compared with other emergency measures in other countries, because other countries also limit some personal freedoms during the state of emergency. And it's also worth mentioning that Index is an opposition newspaper, always very strongly critical of the government.
    – vsz
    Mar 31 '20 at 4:08
  • 22
    @vsz: True. However, other European countries do not have comparable measures. They do limit contacts and/or impose curfews, but they do not limit freedom of speech, nor do they suspend elections or give special powers to the executive. Anyway, this might make a good new question...
    – sleske
    Mar 31 '20 at 6:55
  • @sleske The UK have delayed local elections and the London Mayor elections for a year. Guardian Article, several US primaries have been delayed NYTimes, suspend is obviously more serious, but who know what is to come.
    – Jontia
    Apr 1 '20 at 10:03
  • 3
    Usually, emergency state has a deadline and there must be a new vote if the emergency needs prolongation. For example, our country doesn't allow emergency state for more than 30 days. Also we should note that freedom of speech (media) has been heavily suppressed in Hungary for years. The implication don't come only from this separate act but also from the acts before.
    – Sulthan
    Apr 1 '20 at 12:25
  • @Jontia Primaries being delayed don't allow Trump to stay in office any longer. I don't know about UK specifically, but parliamentary systems often have some latitude built in as to when elections are held. Apr 1 '20 at 16:57

The official version is available in Hungarian here.

The law is in sync with the indefinite and uncontrolled state of the virus and its progressing spread. The law grants no extraordinary powers outside the scope of the epidemic.

Regarding human rights and democracy, the law does extend the criminal code (BTK) 337. § (2) with regulations on spreading false statements, just like with The First Amendment the limitations on free speech are almost always specific to particular cases.

The law has been objected that elections are stalled until the end of the epidemic. Since no digital election system has been introduced as of yet it is a correct move to open the possibility to skip these public gatherings. The coming major elections are due in 2022, this law will very likely not impact that in any way.

The most important thing to point out is that this law, just like the virus, is temporary, and can be put to an end even before the end of the epidemic 3. § (2) by the government, so there is little to which the Secretary-General could reasonably object.

  • 2
    "Can be put to an end by the governement". However, not by the parliament and also the parliament cannot be changed until the law is put to end. The law effectively suspends democracy. That's actually valid for emergency states. The problem is not specifying any time limit. Even a year would be good although most countries wouldn't dare to suspend democracy for more than a few months.
    – Sulthan
    Apr 1 '20 at 12:29
  • 1
    @Sulthan: As far as I understand, the law can be changed by parliament: The English translation linked above says "(2) The Parliament may withdraw the authorization set forth in paragraph (1) before the end of the emergency." However, you correctly point out that the suspension of elections is troubling.
    – sleske
    Apr 1 '20 at 16:38
  • 2
    As to elections: As I understand, the next elections are only scheduled for 2022 (national) and 2024 (local) - so it is rather puzzling why they are included in a law that is explicitly only meant for the short term.
    – sleske
    Apr 1 '20 at 16:41
  • 3
    @sleske: 6. § speaks about by-elections, those could normally come any time a vacancy opens up.
    – Gábor
    Apr 1 '20 at 16:44
  • "the government" is ambiguous. In the UK, it refers to the executive branch, but in the US it refers to the state as a whole. Apr 1 '20 at 16:59

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