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Hungary grants government extraordinary powers with no end date amid coronavirus pandemic

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Hungary’s parliament on Monday approved a bill giving Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government extraordinary powers during the coronavirus pandemic, and setting no end date for them.

The bill was approved by Orban’s Fidesz party and other government supporters by 137 votes in favour to 53 against. It needed 133 votes to pass.

President Janos Ader signed the bill into law shortly after its approval in parliament and it will take effect from Tuesday.

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The legislation has been criticized by opposition parties, international institutions and civic groups for failing include an expiration date for the government’s ability to rule by decree.

It also includes measures against false information which have raised concerns they they could be used by the government to muzzle independent media.

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“The extraordinary measures are related to the pandemic, to its prevention, its elimination and the prevention of the damaging economic consequences,” said Csaba Domotor, a deputy minister in Orban’s Cabinet Office.

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“A time limit cannot be declared in this situation because there is no one … who can say how many months of struggle we have to prepare for.”

Opposition lawmakers said they were willing to give the government the requested powers, but only if they were set for a certain period, with the possibility of extensions.

“The opposition is united on the issue of giving the government powers which are significantly more extensive than the authority in the Constitution,” said Tamas Harangozo, a lawmaker with the opposition Socialist Party.

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“The opposition’s request is that “the government accept that it can only do this within time limits.”

The human rights chief at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe also expressed concerns about the new legislation.

“It is clear that states need to act swiftly in order to protect their populations from the COVID-19 pandemic, and I understand that extraordinary measures may be required to do so,” said Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir, director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

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“However, a state of emergency — wherever it is declared and for whatever reason — must be proportionate to its aim, and only remain in place for as long as absolutely necessary.”

The opposition criticized as insufficient the government’s economic measures meant to alleviate the effects of the pandemic. While Orban has announced numerous tax breaks and the postponement until 2021 of debt payments by households and companies, critics have cited the lack of direct payments to employers to save jobs.

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Opposition parties have also called on salaries to be doubled for workers in the health sector.

Orban said the government would announce a package of economic measures on April 6 or 7 to boost growth. He said it would be the largest action of its kind in Hungarian history.

A rights group known in part for its advocacy for refugees and asylum-seekers said that checks on the government’s rule by decree would now have to come from external institutions to a greater extent.

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“Parliament, as the legislative body representing the people, practically will be in recess from now on. Law will be essentially made by the government,” the Hungarian Helsinki Committee said. “In the absence of the proper function of parliament, civic control of the government and its institutions _ especially by the press, civic groups, and human rights watchdogs _ becomes more valuable.”

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The opposition parties were also critical of the government’s refusal to consider allowing lawmakers to vote from home.

Hungary’s Constitution does not allow parliamentary sessions or votes to be held via teleconferencing or other remote methods and the government said it has no plans for a constitutional amendment needed to create the option.

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“If we’re asking the whole country to stay home, then the Hungarian parliament should be able to do the same if the virus situation justifies it,” said independent lawmaker Bernadett Szel.

A decree setting restrictions on leaving home, with exceptions for going to work or for essential needs like food shopping, took effect on Saturday.

Hungary declared a state of emergency on March 11 due to the spread of coronavirus. So far 447 cases have been confirmed in the country, with 15 deaths.

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