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Hungary nullifies independent judiciary, cementing Orban’s authoritarian grip

The new "reforms" would make it all-but-impossible to prosecute him or anyone in his party.

Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, in Krakow, Poland, on 9 December, 2016. (Credit: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, in Krakow, Poland, on 9 December, 2016. (Credit: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban took another step closer to becoming Europe’s premier autocrat by passing a law that effectively nullifies the country’s independent judiciary.

Under the new legislation, which passed through the Hungarian Parliament on Wednesday, the country’s supreme court is now stripped of its ability to judge what are known as administrative disputes. In Hungary, this is a wide-ranging description encompassing everything from electoral law to corruption to police abuse to tax evasion.

Instead, a new system will be set up over the next 12 months overseen by Orban’s justice minister, who will control which judges get promoted to settle the administrative disputes. Hungary’s existing independent judiciary would be significantly weakened and have no oversight of the new system.

The move to quash the independence of the judiciary is the latest autocratic move by Orban, who is feeling increasingly emboldened as the beleaguered European Union confronts political threats on all sides, be it from Brexit, the Yellow Vests protests in France, or the rise of far-right parties like AfD in Germany.

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Earlier in December, Central European University, a college founded by George Soros, was forced to leave Budapest for Vienna after being relentlessly targeted by Orban’s government. This Wednesday, the same day Orban cemented his control of the judiciary, the Hungarian Parliament also passed what is being dubbed a “slave law.” This allows companies to demand up to 400 hours of overtime from its employees per year — the equivalent of 50 days — while delaying paying them for three years.

Hungary, however, is not the first EU country to lurch further towards authoritarianism by lessening the independence of its judiciary. In July, Poland moved to dismiss nearly 40 percent of the judges on its Supreme Court and replace them with those hand-picked by the governing Law and Justice Party. The move was greeted with fury by Polish justices, and in November, after a ruling at the European Court of Justice, Poland repealed the changes.

Poland’s repeal means that Hungary is now front and center as one of the main drivers of nationalism and populism within the EU. Evidence for this was seen in September, when the European Parliament delivered an unprecedented censure to Hungary, saying it posed a “clear risk of serious breach” to the EU’s principles. The judicial reforms, coupled with the “slave law,” however, show that Orban’s government has little fear of the EU. This is partly due to the fact that Poland and Hungary have pledged to veto any effort to have each others voting rights suspended by the EU, which is seen as the ultimate punishment.