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Hungary’s Orban Wins Right to Rule by Decree

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was in Parliament in Budapest on Monday as lawmakers prepared to approve legislation that gave the government extraordinary powers.

Photo: Zoltan Mathe/Associated Press

Hungary’s parliament gave Prime Minister Viktor Orbán the right to rule by decree until his government decides the coronavirus crisis has ended, defying criticism from European Union leaders that the pandemic is providing cover for his and other governments to crack down on democratic freedoms.

The bill, passed on Monday almost entirely by votes from the prime minister’s nationalist party, Fidesz, contained two important provisions: If parliament is unable to meet, which its leaders have already said would be difficult, Mr. Orbán could continue to govern under a state of emergency, creating and suspending laws by decree. Only Mr. Orbán’s government, or a two-thirds majority in parliament, could decide when this period would come to an end.

Secondly, the law imposes a maximum of five years’ prison time against those who intentionally spread false news or “distorted truth” that is seen to be detrimental to the government’s efforts to fight the virus and address its economic toll.

Military police patrolled the Hungarian capital on Monday, amid a national lockdown to halt the spread of the new coronavirus.

Photo: Zoltan Balogh/Associated Press

The law came under criticism from EU leaders and some legal scholars, who said that the coronavirus crisis has now given Mr. Orbán autocratic powers that can only be clawed back by his own cabinet, or his party, which controls two-thirds of seats in parliament.

The bill is part of a spate of new measures in Europe that target individuals who share rumors or falsehoods that hinder the battle against the pandemic.

Mr. Orbán has rejected such criticism, saying that the EU has been less helpful to Hungary than China, which sent 3 million medical masks last week. Fighting the virus will require unusual measures for an indefinite period, said Mr. Orbán, who has promised to relinquish his rule-by-decree powers as soon as the crisis ends.

“There are situations in which one cannot be polite,” he said during a radio broadcast on Saturday. “So I plainly told EU nit-pickers, if I may put it that way, that this is not the time to come to me pontificating about all sorts of no doubt fascinating legal and theoretical questions. Because now we have a crisis, now we have an epidemic, and now we must save lives.”

Hungary has had 447 confirmed Covid-19 cases as of Monday, with 15 deaths, since its first case on March 4. Members of Mr. Orbán’s party said they worried that the government would cease to function if they fell ill before affording their prime minister extraordinary powers.

The White House extends social-distancing guidelines to April 30, bills are due this week for millions of Americans, and while China gradually reopens, India sees a mass exodus of workers leaving cities. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday has the latest on the pandemic. Photo: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

“We needed a law for the worst-case scenario when parliament is unable to operate,” said a Fidesz member of parliament who declined to be named because he wasn’t authorized by the party to speak to the press. “What if all of us will be in the hospital?”

The law is one in a number of emergency measures that human-rights groups worry will leave parts of the world less democratic than before the coronavirus pandemic, including Russia, Bolivia and Israel.

Europe has seen a crackdown on press freedoms and social media, as some governments try to snuff out news that they feel spreads unwarranted panic. Serbia, Montenegro and Hungary have launched investigations into some social-media posts, and in some cases arrested individuals involved. In February, police in Budapest raided a building and detained two people suspected of seeding articles and Facebook posts that inflated Hungary’s death toll.

“Political leaders could abuse the coronavirus crisis to undermine democracy,” wrote Andras Racz, senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “Europe’s biggest risk is Hungary.”

Mr. Orbán, a nationalist known for fencing off his border to migrants, has long feuded with the EU’s center-right and liberal blocs. The 56-year-old prime minister, who has led Hungary for nearly half of its postcommunist history, has won repeat landslide elections in part by campaigning against the union’s political establishment.

“We’re not preventing anyone from doing their job,” said Eric Mamer, the spokesperson of the European Commission, after receiving a question on Mr. Orbán’s comments on Monday. “At the same time, however, we are vigilant and we ensure compliance with EU standards in all areas of politics during the fight against the coronavirus.”

Write to Drew Hinshaw at drew.hinshaw@wsj.com

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