Hungary creates new court system, cementing leader’s control of judiciary
BUDAPEST — Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary tightened his grip on power Wednesday, as the Hungarian Parliament, controlled by Orban’s far-right party, approved the creation of a parallel court system that cements executive control over the judiciary.
Once the new system begins operating within the next 12 months, Orban’s justice minister will control the hiring and promotion of its judges, who will have jurisdiction over cases relating to “public administration” — including politically sensitive matters like electoral law, corruption, and the right to protest.
Hungary’s existing judiciary, which already faces significant meddling by Orban’s government, will continue to work — but with a reduced mandate, and with no oversight of the parallel court system, known as the administrative courts.
Civil-rights watchdogs see the move as the latest erosion of democratic institutions under Orban, who since entering office in 2010 has created a blueprint for backsliding from the liberal democracy that took hold in Eastern Europe in the 1990s. His example has been followed in democracies like Poland, and has won admirers among a generation of populist figures in France, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United States.
Orban has already spent nearly eight years undermining the independence of Hungary’s courts and other institutions.
He has appointed an old friend as leader of the judicial system, stacked the Constitutional Court with loyalists, altered the electoral process to favor his party, brought most of the Hungarian media under the control of his closest allies, and appointed friends and party colleagues to lead state watchdog institutions, including the prosecution service.
This month, he forced a leading private university to leave Hungary, and waived competition regulations to allow loyalist media owners to “donate” hundreds of newspapers, television channels, radio stations, and websites to a central fund controlled by three of his closest supporters.
In a submission to Parliament, the Hungarian government justified the new judicial system by arguing that it was in keeping with European norms, and conformed to recommendations from international bodies such as the Venice Commission, an advisory panel on constitutional matters.
The courts will be independent and more efficient than the existing system, according to a separate statement by Zoltan Kovacs, the Hungarian government spokesman.
“In administrative courts, rulings would be made by judges who are more experienced, better equipped, and more knowledgeable about the unique body of law that regulates public administration,” Kovacs wrote.
“Independent administrative courts exist in many other European countries, for example in Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Poland,” Kovacs added.
Critics say, however, that the system is a clear infringement of judicial independence.
The new court system — and particularly its ability to influence Hungary’s election system — completes Hungary’s transition from a liberal democracy to a “competitive authoritarian regime,” said Cas Mudde, a University of Georgia professor who is an expert on populism, the far right, and contemporary authoritarianism.
Orban’s Fidesz Party had already tilted elections and the news media heavily in its favor, but Mudde said, “with the government also in full control of the elections, with no independent judiciary oversight, we can no longer pretend elections will be even remotely free and fair.
“This means Hungary becomes an authoritarian regime, in which opposition is allowed to exist, but not allowed to fundamentally challenge, let alone change, the regime,” Mudde said.
Opposition parties have struggled to dent Orban’s large majority in Parliament. They have been hampered by their own infighting, restrictions on private media, the failure of state institutions to investigate or prosecute allegations of government wrongdoing, and a restructuring of the electoral system that encourages small opposition parties to run individually rather than as a united bloc.
But opposition lawmakers did manage Wednesday to land a rare glancing blow against Orban, delaying the parliamentary vote on a raft of new legislation, including the courts law, by blocking access to the speaker’s podium inside the parliamentary chamber and blowing whistles for over two hours.
Their anger was directed primarily at a piece of legislation that allows companies to force employees to work up to 400 extra hours a year, or roughly one extra day per week.
The government says the law is a necessary response to a growing shortage of workers, but critics fear it undermines basic labor rights, and argue that its passage through the Parliament is invalid for procedural reasons.
Sensing a rare opportunity to attract new supporters, opposition lawmakers have centered their ire on what they term “the slave law,” rather than the new court system, which has primarily drawn the attention of rights watchdogs and international observers.
“We are representing the worker class in Parliament, and we are very much focused on the slave law,” said Balazs Lang, communications director for the Hungarian Socialist Party, the second-largest opposition party. “People will have to work every Saturday, if Mr. Orban wants it.”
The standoff in Parliament gave Orban a rare moment of public discomfort, after an opposition lawmaker, Bence Tordai, livestreamed a confrontation between them.
“Are you proud of the slave law?” Tordai asked Orban. “What would be a good name for this law? Perhaps you’d prefer the serf law? Are you building a new slavery or new serfdom?”
When Orban reacted only with silent discomfort, Tordai said: “Viktor Orban is not at his best right now. The great debater doesn’t have a single word.”
In protest over the new laws, a crowd of around 2,000 people marched through central Budapest on Wednesday, briefly blocking several roads and a major bridge. Protesters gathered outside Orban’s party headquarters, where two protesters — one holding a European Union flag — scaled a low balcony, before assembling outside Parliament.
“Why did I come here?” asked Sarolta G. Szabo, a 26-year-old student. “It’s enough what Viktor Orban is doing to my country, my home. It’s like they’re going back to the Communist time.”
Some chanted “Orban, get out of here,” and “traitor,” while others held a banner that said, “Students with the workers against the slave law.”
But the protest against Orban was comparatively small. Orban’s party won nearly half the vote last April in a general election that election observers said was free but not fair.