Opposition parties block rushed vote on 'Lex Covid'

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Hungarian MPs have discussed a bill in Parliament on Monday that would give Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s cabinet essentially unlimited power indefinitely, during the state of emergency he declared on 11 March. Opposition parties have objected but the PM made it clear that the bill can be adopted even without their votes.
Óriásit megy Orbán Viktor népesedési programja külföldön

Opposition MPs block Tuesday vote on controversial bill

With 137 votes in favour and 52 against Parliament lacked the requried 80% backing to vote on the bill in an extraordinary procedure on Tuesday.  However, in an expedited procedure Parliament will be able to vote on - and, considering the two-thirds majority of the Fidesz-KDNP ruling coalition, adopt - the bill next Tuesday. 

What’s wrong with this bill?

The proposal raised concerns as it would give practically unlimited powers to the government without a clear timeframe. Under the extended state of crisis, the cabinet could create and keep in effect special decrees even if no more parliamentary sessions are held in the remainder of the year, or even beyond.

Fighting the spread of COVID-19, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government has already closed schools, cinemas, theatres, the borders to foreign citizens and limited the opening hours of stores, except for groceries, pharmacies, petrol stations and tobacco stores. (Given that COVID-19 goes for the lungs, often causing double pneumonia, if there is ever a good time to quit smoking, it is now!)

36 new cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) infection have been identified in Hungary since Sunday morning, the highest daily figure yet, bringing the total to 167. The death toll is now at seven after an elderly man succumbed to the virus on Sunday, following two other deaths earlier in the day.

Justice Minister Judit Varga submitted legislation to Parliament late on Friday that would impose prison sentences of up to five years on those hindering measures that are aimed at containing the spread of the virus and on those spreading false information.

The draft does not go into details, creating fears that it could enable the Orbán government, which in recent years itself has disseminated misleading information and attacked journalists, to decide what can be reported and what is true.

The bill would also make it possible to lock up anyone for up to eight years "who interferes with the operation of a quarantine or isolation order", which raises concerns over sweeping powers of the government to round up people, euobserver reported.

The special powers would allow the cabinet to "suspend the application of certain laws, derogate from legal provisions, and take extraordinary measures in the interest of guaranteeing the stabilisation of the lives, health, personal and material security of citizens, as well as the economy," according to bill submitted.

Highlights from Orbán’s extarodinary address in Parliament today:

Orbán reiterated his announcement made today morning (see details here).

He said the government has to fight the spread of the coronavirus on four military, police, health care and economic - fronts.

As for deployable law enforcement officers (all under the age of 65), he said there are

  • 23,950 lifers (professional soldiers)
  • 9,381 reservists 
  • 10,649 soldiers who were demobilised within the last five years
  • 70,275 people in uniform
  • 46,573 civil guards (unarmed) 
  • 139,684 in total. 

Orbán stressed that it is everyone’s joint responsibility to contain this virus, adding that it’s time to join forces. He asked for the support of every parliamentary party, saying this is a task no one can solve alone. However, some time later and after hearing the objections ofo opposition parties, Orbán said “we will be able solve this crisis even without you”, i.e. the opposition.

Tímea Szabó, head of Párbeszéd (Dialogue) asked the PM where are those 1.5 million masks Orbán talked about in the morning and in Parliament.

I may be sent to jail for scaremongering but at the moment there are not enough protective gears in hospitals for doctors and nurses

, she said, referring to the planned modification of the penal code that would impose prison sentences of up to five years on those hindering measures that are aimed at containing the spread of the virus and on those spreading false information.

She stressed that no government in Europe even attempted to adopt such a bill that the ruling Fidesz party is now trying to enact. “This is what they call a dictatorship,” she said, adding that Orbán’s “enemy is not the virus but us, opposition parties”, and dubbed the bill ‘Lex Covid’.

Bertalan Tóth, President of the Socialist Party (MSzP), welcomed the measures taken so far, but said Orbán should hear what unions are saying and finally consult with the employers’ representative bodies too.

Tabling a proposal and declaring: it’s my way or the highway is not exactly consultation.

He reiterated a recommendation by opposition parties to put a 90-day expiry date on the ‘authorisation bill’, partly because millions of voters do not trust Orbán’s government.

Government to go ahead even without opposition support

Máté Kocsis, head of the Fidesz parliamentary group said the coronavirus bill (i.e. ‘Lex Covid’ or ‘Authorisation Bill’ or as Momentum President András Fekete-Győr called it ‘Dictator Bill’) will be adopted without the opposition too.

We need to discuss the coronavirus law, but we need the opposition for that. We’d like to take a decision together with you. We have an hour until the four-fifth majority vote, [but] you can help us also if you leave the chamber. We’ll assume all responsibility

, index.hu cited Kocsis as saying.

He noted they are willing to discuss the proposal on the tightening of regulations on scaremongering but no one knows at this point whether Parliament will still be able to hold meetings 90 days from now. It is not up to the government how long the pandemic lasts.

István Hollik of the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) said “it is not an exaggeration that Europe and Hungary are both at war.” The reason why there is no expiry date on the bill apart from “the end of the state of emergency” is because there is no way of knowing when the pandemic will be gone therefore the authorisation should not expire.

Opposition parties argued that the authorisation to extend the government’s powers should have at least some expiry date, e.g. it should be reviewed very 15 days (Democratic Coalition) or 90 days, as the MSzP recommended.

He added that those crying unlimited power are “not all there”.

Péter Jakab, deputy faction leader of the far-right Jobbik party, said “there is one word that describes this bill: coup [d’etat].”

Opposition parties are behind every measure aimed at containing this virus, but they would not give Orbán the power to decide when the pandemic is over. He could potentially maintain a state of crisis for years, exploiting the authorisation this bill would give him.

The real question is this: is it justifiable to grant Viktor Orbán lifelong authorisation for a rule by decree?

LMP group leader László Lóránt Keresztes said he is shocked by the addresses he heard in Parliament today, which attest that MPs still don’t get it how serious this pandemic is. Mentioning negative examples from other countries he highlighted the importance of protective gear for those working in the frontline, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, GPs. The PM’s reassurance does not work on him, as there are still ample reports every day about the shortage of protective gear.

No need for the opposition parties

Thanks everyone for letting me know what the prime minister’s job is

, said Orbán. He added that opposition parties misunderstand this bill, and that he is actually trying to give the right back to Parliament to decide when the state of emergency is no longer necessary to be in place. Parliament will have the chance every day to declare the state of emergency any day of the week.

You can rescind it tomorrow morning if you wish

, he said, adding that once the pandemic is gone, the state of emergency will be lifted too, but this is not something that can be predicted. It is certain, though, he added, that “90 days from now we’ll all be in a worse condition” than we are now. That is why a 90-day authorisation is enough. He said he would not even accept such limitation because the situation will certainly be worse three months from now.

Orbán then reminded his fellow MPs that the Fidesz-KDNP coalition has legislative majority therefore the opposition should not be outraged that this majority takes decisions instead of their minority. He stated:

We will solve this crisis even without you.

Orbán boasted that Hungary was among the first in Europe to take every important decision.

Errr, no, it wasn’t. Let’s take the closure of schools for instance. There was a bit of delay, wasn’t there. And that’s only one crucial step of many. Oh, sorry, Orbán also said today that schools were not closed, they were also switched to online curricula. Yeah, and parents who are now staying at home with their kids switched to online parenting, while they continue to work in their regular jobs.

Hungary 133 bravest people are in... (drum roll)... (drum roll)... in the ruling coalition!

I need 133 brave people, I need the 133 bravest people of the country

, said Orbán poetically, claiming that the 133 bravest people of the country are in the governing caucuses in Parliament. 

Errr, I would say the bravest people in Hungary are doctors, nurses and everyone in the shoddy health care system who not only have to work exremely long hours, but often without the necessary protective gear, facing a virus that infected over 360,000 and killed nearly 15,500 people worldwide. But then who am I to debate what the PM says? An opinion is like an a...hole, everyone has one.

He has also made it clear he does not give a toss about the opposition, he only cares for the Fidesz-KDNP coalition, and its members not to back down, not to care about anything but to carry out the measures he deems necessary for the sake of the country.

Hard times are coming, everyone should rise to the challenge!

Tímea Szabó of Párbeszéd (Dialogue) asked if Orbán needs 133 brave people or 133 irresponsible people.

What is MP László Bíró Nagy doing here? [He’s here] because it is more important than anything for you to have two thirds [majority].

Said MP has today retreated in a voluntary home quarantine for he attended the celebration of the 15 March national holiday together with László Rovó, the rector of the University of Science of Szeged. Rovó, who tested positive for COVID-19 after a skiing trip to Austria, went back to work as if nothing was wrong. He claims he did not act irresponsibly and did not infect anyone, for he maintained a sterile workplace as always. As soon as he showed symptoms, he said, he took the necessary precautionary steps and he is currently in home quarantine with his family.

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