Orban Tightens Grip Over Hungarian Courts After Chaotic Vote

(Bloomberg) -- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s long march toward one-man rule in the heart of the European Union hit a new milestone.

Shrugging off the threat of sanctions from Brussels, Orban’s lawmakers approved a law Wednesday that will further tighten his hold over the country’s court system. Opposition lawmakers tried to prevent the opening of the parliamentary session and then whistled and jeered as the ruling coalition voted to create a new high court to deal with public-administration cases and brought it under the government’s oversight.

Orban Tightens Grip Over Hungarian Courts After Chaotic Vote

A third-consecutive election win in April gave Orban, 55, and his Fidesz party a constitutional majority, which made the vote a formality. The re-election also gave Orban a self-claimed mandate to continue the NATO member’s transformation into an “illiberal state” along the lines of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, frustrating EU efforts to maintain the unity underpinning the world’s largest trading bloc.

“We’re long past the point of no return when it comes to salvaging the rule of law, but even so, the creation of this rubber-stamp court is alarming,” said Mate Szabo, a lawyer and program director at Hungary’s Civil Liberties Union. “The EU has been totally unprepared to deal with it.”

Political Influence

The legislation strips the supreme court of its ultimate authority over so-called administrative disputes -- cases involving everything from elections and corruption to taxes and police abuse -- and creates a new court overseen by his justice minister.

In filing the bill to parliament, Justice Minister Laszlo Trocsanyi pledged to respect the “principle of judicial independence and separation of powers.” But he also said he needed to take “greater political responsibility” over the administrative courts. He’ll pick the new court’s judges and control its budget.

Orban has capitalized on a seemingly endless series of crises elsewhere in Europe to consolidate power. When he returned to the premiership in 2010, it was the Greek debt crisis and the survival of the euro. More recently it’s been Britain’s tortuous attempt to leave the EU, France’s violent protests and the challenge to the bloc’s budget rules posed by Italy’s new populist government.

It took the EU’s parliament until September to say that it had finally amassed enough evidence to recommend an investigation because of the “clear risk” to the rule of law under Orban. That put Hungary in the same category as Poland, which is also being probed for flouting what the EU refers to as democratic values.

While Poland last month showed signs of backing down from a supreme court overhaul that mimicked Orban’s earlier transformation of the judiciary, the Hungarian leader appears to have been only emboldened by EU pressure. That’s due, in part, because Poland and Hungary have pledged to shield each other from the ultimate penalty -- having their EU voting rights suspended -- by vetoing any such effort.

University Exodus

Last month, Orban was chastised by the EU and the U.S. for helping the former leader of the Republic of Macedonia, Nikola Gruevski, escape prison by giving him asylum. He also enabled the creation of what may be the most blatantly pro-government media holding in Europe.

Some of Hungary’s richest people “donated” hundreds of websites, TV networks, radio stations and print publications to a foundation run by an editor known for his loyalty to Orban -- and then the prime minister signed a decree exempting the merger from regulatory checks.

Days later, Orban effectively expelled an entire post-graduate school for the first time in EU history by preventing Central European University, which was founded billionaire-philanthropist George Soros, from enrolling new students for its U.S.-degree programs.

By doing so, Orban defied not only the EU’s executive, which had filed suit to stop the enrollment ban, but also the Trump administration. The new U.S. ambassador to Budapest pledged to end American efforts to isolate Hungary over Orban’s authoritarianism if certain goodwill gestures were made, including overturning the restrictions on the CEU.

On Wednesday, Orban’s lawmakers also faced down protests from the opposition and labor unions and approved a law raising the amount of overtime employers can demand of workers by 60 percent to 400 hours annually. The legislation was dubbed the “slave law” by critics.

“Orban is feeling omnipotent,” said Peter Kreko, director of Political Capital, a research group in Budapest. “He feels there’s nothing inside or outside Hungary that can limit his power and he’s making that clear.”

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