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During COVID-19 Outbreak, Hungary's Orbán Grabs Power


There are only a few hundred confirmed cases of the virus in Hungary, but the nationalist government there has passed a law giving the prime minister unlimited power indefinitely. Critics say, Prime Minister Viktor Orban is paving the way for one-man rule in a European Union nation. Joanna Kakissis reports.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Julia (ph) is a multilingual grandmother in Budapest who follows every rule to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Before Friday's curfews were announced, she'd only gone out once.

JULIA: I took my car from the garage, and I went five minutes with the car to see my grandchild from far away while she was playing in an empty park with her mom.

KAKISSIS: What she cannot stomach is a law that extends a state of emergency indefinitely and allows Prime Minister Viktor Orban to bypass Parliament and rule by decree. Julia asked us not to use her last name because she believes Orban will come after those who criticize him during the pandemic.

JULIA: He is afraid that where he can't manage the situation, that could make people turn away from him. And that's why I think that he would do just anything to stay in power because the situation is terrible.

KAKISSIS: Speaking on Skype, health policy expert Zsofia Kollanyi describes hospitals without basic sanitation like toilet paper and sanitizer - and a shortage of staff.

ZSOFIA KOLLANYI: It's not just that there is not enough nurses and doctors and so on, but also that we are spending, compared to our economy power, less and less on health care.

KAKISSIS: Orban's government is supported by many people in Hungary. But...

KIM LANE SCHEPPELE: The one place where the state has really not been doing well and everybody knows it is in providing health care to Hungarians.

KAKISSIS: Kim Lane Scheppele is a professor at Princeton University and an expert on Hungary.

SCHEPPELE: So Orban's been walking around with this Achilles' heel of the health care system. And suddenly, this giant arrow comes out of the sky and hits him right in the Achilles' heel. That's what this pandemic is.

KAKISSIS: Orban did not talk a lot about the health care system last week when he told lawmakers why the bill granting him sweeping emergency powers was important.


PRIME MINISTER VIKTOR ORBAN: (Through interpreter) The pandemic has made change unavoidable. This law helps us do whatever we can to defend Hungary.

KAKISSIS: That includes jail terms of up to five years for anyone spreading false information about the virus.

GABOR GYORI: That is an extremely subjective standard.

KAKISSIS: Gabor Gyori is a political analyst in Budapest.

GYORI: It can be applied to honest efforts by investigating reporters to look at how the government is handling the coronavirus cases. It could be applied for posting something on Facebook that is factually accurate but it frightens people.

KAKISSIS: Georg Spottle is an analyst with a pro-government think tank. Speaking on a bad connection from Budapest, he insists the government will use the law only to shut down online fraudsters.

GEORG SPOTTLE: Some criminals make website and writing fake news about martial law, about lack of food in Hungary, lack of clear water and everything.

KAKISSIS: Hungarian journalists are concerned about the law, but they're also worried about losing their jobs. Veronika Munk, deputy editor of the widely read online newspaper Index, points out that the few remaining independent media in Hungary rely on reader donations.

VERONIKA MUNK: If people lose their jobs, then they won't donate to us.

KAKISSIS: And if these media outlets go under, she says, there will be fewer voices left to challenge Viktor Orban.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis.


Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.