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Two members of the military police patrol the streets in Budapest on Monday, as part of a lockdown imposed by the government due to the coronavirus. (Zoltan Balogh/AP)

The Hungarian parliament on Monday handed the country's populist prime minister, Viktor Orban, the power to govern unchallenged for as long as he sees fit, a move rights groups said effectively suspends democracy in the European Union member state in the name of fighting the novel coronavirus.

The “coronavirus bill,” which allows Orban to rule by decree and bypass the national assembly, passed by 137 to 53 votes despite opposition efforts to attach an expiration date on the state of emergency. The law also punishes those who “distort” or publish “false” information on the outbreak with five years in jail.

The government has said that the emergency powers are necessary to fight the outbreak, but political analysts say they have questions about whether Orban will relinquish them when the health crisis subsides. Hungary has 447 coronavirus cases and 15 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

“He is using this crisis to further increase his power,” said András Bíró-Nagy, the director of the Budapest-based Policy Solutions think tank. “The Hungarian prime minister enjoys the situation where he can act as a captain in a crisis. I don’t see him giving up these powers again easily.”

He pointed to the fact that Orban, leader of the right-wing anti-immigration Fidesz party, still holds emergency powers introduced in 2016 to deal with the migrant crisis.

Orban does not stand alone in being accused of a coronavirus power grab amid concerns that leaders with authoritarian tendencies could exploit the current crisis.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been accused of carrying out what critics have dubbed a “coronavirus coup” to remain leader and delay his impending court proceedings. Security agencies have also been ordered to track users’ data without their consent.

Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, failed to convince lawmakers to give him the authority to take over private businesses earlier this month. But even the emergency powers he has been granted have raised concerns given his past record of flouting the rule of law.

While expansive emergency measures in countries such as Britain, France and Italy may have an end date before they must gain parliamentary approval for extensions, the lifting of checks and balances on democracies needs to be closely monitored, rights activists say.

“In states of emergency, there may be a need to temporarily derogate from certain rights and procedures but any such measures need to be temporary, proportionate and absolutely necessary from a public health perspective,” said Lydia Gall, an Eastern Europe researcher with Human Rights Watch.

“Vaguely formulated provisions, as can be seen in the state-of-emergency legislation adopted, do not fulfill those criteria and certainly not when they are set for an indefinite period of time,” she added.

The vote by Hungary’s parliament effectively leaves the Orban administration free to pass any type of decree it sees fit, she said. “We will have to wait and see how the government will use this unlimited power.”

There are fears that it will be used to further curb independent voices and a free press, she said. Hungary has made several arrests in recent weeks of people accused of spreading “fake news” over the number of coronavirus cases in the country, even though many believe the real number of infections is higher.

While the Orban-controlled government says the constitutional court can still act as a check, observers point out that it has been stacked with Orban loyalists.

“In practice, everybody in Hungary knows the constitutional court is never going to go against Orban,” Bíró-Nagy said.

The European Union has already launched punitive measures against Orban’s government.

The bloc said that Orban’s attacks on the media, the judiciary and the rights of minorities pose a “systematic threat” to its core values.

But so far, it has not managed to shift Hungary’s course, and analysts say the 27-member bloc will now be distracted with the broader issues of dealing with the coronavirus crisis.

Reactions were muted on Monday.

Didier Reynders, the European Union commissioner for justice, said that the organization evaluates emergency measures taken by member states in relation to fundamental rights.

“This is particularly the case for the law passed today in Hungary concerning the state of emergency and new criminal penalties for the dissemination of false information,” he tweeted.

Others, including former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, called for decisive action.

“I have been dreaming of a ‘United States of Europe’ for years,” he wrote on Twitter. “Precisely for this reason, I have the right, and the duty, to say that after what Orban has done today, the European Union MUST act and make him change his mind. Or, simply, expel Hungary from the Union.”

László György Lukács, a right-wing parliamentarian with the Jobbik party, told the pro-government news site Hungary Today that he believed in tough measures to fight the virus but “Orbán must not use the epidemic to build a kingdom.”

Michael Birnbaum in Brussels and Steve Hendrix in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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