Hungary govt seeks to extend special powers amid coronavirus crisis

BUDAPEST, March 21 (Reuters) - The Hungarian government will ask parliament to extend a state of emergency due to the spread of the coronavirus and seek powers to suspend laws and pass decrees to contain it, a draft bill submitted to parliament shows.

Nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has been in power since 2010, has already closed schools, borders to foreign citizens, and limited the opening hours of shops and restaurants in the Central European country of 10 million.

The number of confirmed cases stood at 103 on Saturday and four people have died.

Justice Minister Judit Varga submitted legislation to parliament late on Friday that would extend the state of crisis indefinitely, and would impose prison sentences of up to 5 years on those hindering measures that are aimed at containing the spread of the virus and on those spreading false information.

The government declared a state of emergency on March 11 which was valid for 15 days and now aims to extend it.

“The aim of the proposal is ... to allow Hungary’s government to create and keep in effect its special decrees” even if parliament does not hold a session due to coronavirus in 2020, the bill said.

Opposition parties said on Saturday that they want an all-party discussion about the bill on Monday before parliament holds a session.

“No one knows how long we have to maintain this state of crisis,” Mate Kocsis, head of the ruling Fidesz party’s parliamentary group, told private television HirTv.

Kocsis said the government wants to pass the bill in an accelerated procedure, which needs support from 80% of lawmakers. He asked opposition parties to back the legislation.

The proposal raised concerns as it would give practically unlimited powers to the government without a clear timeframe, said thinktank Political Capital.

“There is no rational explanation in the current situation for the extension of the state of emergency indefinitely,” the liberal thinktank said in a statement.

In 2015, during the peak of the migration crisis, Hungary declared a state of emergency due to mass migration which has been in effect ever since, even though the number of migrants reaching Hungary’s southern border fence has fallen. (Reporting by Krisztina Than; editing by Jason Neely)