The tightening political stranglehold of the Fidesz government on Hungarian institutions and society in general leads many people to the conclusion that this regime cannot be defeated in a democratic election. Even if the opposition were united, the whole system has been so devilishly designed that one cannot escape its deadly embrace. But occasionally there are rays of hope. Here and there the Hungarian judicial system hands down decisions that allow opposition politicians and independent journalists to at least uncover some illegal financial transactions, shady business practices, or obvious corruption cases. These revelations rarely gain traction because Fidesz’s very own prosecution office makes sure that there will be no consequences. Still, the publicity surrounding these cases greatly annoys the powers that be. And so they decided to do something to remedy the situation.
One of the first acts of the Orbán government was a total reorganization of the judiciary system, about which I wrote extensively in 2011 and after. In April 2011 the government lowered the retirement age of judges from 70 to 62, a decision that affected about 10% of all judges. These vacant positions could then be filled with judges who would presumably be grateful to the government that assisted in their promotion. Then, by renaming the Supreme Court Kúria, they managed to get rid of the chief justice and replace him with one of their own. Finally, they set up an entirely new body called Országos Bírósági Hivatal (OBH) whose head, appointed for nine years, is Tünde Handó, a good friend of the Orbáns and the wife of József Szájer, Fidesz EP MP and one of the original founders of Fidesz. She alone decides on appointments and also on the venues of “delicate” cases against former politicians or government officials.
Yet it seems that Orbán didn’t do a thorough enough job. The remaining judges are not all puppets, and occasionally they rule against the government. For example, when the Hungarian National Bank had to hand over all the information about the expenditures of the five or six “foundations” György Matolcsy established. Or, when the court ruled against the government for not allowing Lajos Simicska’s Közgép to bid on government projects. Such interference in the affairs of the government is something Orbán cannot tolerate.
So, here is a new idea: to set up an entirely separate judicial system that would deal exclusively with matters pertaining to the various branches of the administration. Not that there were no judges who specialized in such cases. In fact, in 2013 special courts were set up to handle labor disputes and cases brought against the government or one of its related institutions. But these courts were part of the traditional court system.
What makes this new “reform” especially suspect is that, according to current plans, half of the “judges” would be “instant judges” who have at least ten years of experience in public service. Most real judges, after working for years in the judicial system, have been socialized as independent arbiters responsible only to their own consciences. On the other hand, a civil servant is by definition an obedient employee who is anything but an independent actor. The two mindsets can hardly be reconciled.
As you can imagine, the reaction was one of outrage. When the question of political motive was raised at János Lázár’s regular Thursday press conference, he naturally denied it and added that Tünde Handó’s OBH supports the idea. Not so. A day later 444.hu summarized a 32-page letter written by Handó in which she severely criticized the idea of setting up a separate court system for administrative cases.
As 444.hu pointed out, Handó cannot be accused of being overly critical of the Orbán government, which she has faithfully served for the last six years. Yet she seems to have sensed the political intent behind the move when she noted that “especially important economic and political cases” will end up in these courts. She announced that “there is no need to set up a separate administrative judicial system” with its own high court. She considers “the large number of professionals coming from the executive branch” to be a threat to the independence of the judiciary. In fact, Handó sees constitutional problems with the proposed legislation. Bertalan Tóth, leader of the MSZP parliamentary delegation, expressed the same objection, though a bit more forcefully. He compared these new administrative courts to a case in which “the accused could pick the members of the jury from among his family members.” I think this is an apt description of the situation.
László Trócsányi, minister of justice since 2014, is leading the government’s fight for a separate administrative court system. In an interview with Népszabadság, he insisted that setting up such a system has been in the works ever since 2014 when he became minister. He and his ministry have been working on this system for the last two years, a claim that, if true, would undermine the position that the government decided to act as a result of the embarrassing setbacks it suffered at the hands of regular judges. Considering that the administration wants to introduce the new system only in the spring of 2018, I suspect that Trócsányi is not telling the truth. If he and his ministry had been working on the project for the last two years, it’s unlikely that the government would need another year and a half to launch it. He also tried to lull suspicions that most of the 100 judges who work on cases involving the administration would be fired by saying that they would remain. Eighty people will be added to their ranks. Since the government wants half of the judges to come from the civil service, I assume all 80 will be “instant judges” whose job will be to save the government from further embarrassments.
Trócsányi’s interview with Népszabadság took place on September 2, and by now I see a slight change in his attitude. He is no longer as combative as he was four days ago. Today, talking to Inforádió, a conservative radio station specializing in politics, he kept repeating that it is not important to set up these courts as soon as possible. What is important is that “thinking begins about administrative procedure.” There can be discussions about the details, like structural solutions, but “as long as he is the minister he will not allow any backtracking on the control over the administration,” a statement that sounds ominous even if it’s not very clear.
To change the law Fidesz needs the support of two-thirds of the members of parliament. The government indicated that it would like to talk matters over with the leaders of the five parliamentary parties: Fidesz, KDNP (Christian Democrats), Jobbik, MSZP, and LMP. MSZP already indicated that they will not attend the meeting. Jobbik and LMP will be there, but they refuse to support the bill in its present form. Let’s hope they remain steadfast through all the bill’s eventual iterations. Otherwise they will endorse a Fidesz judiciary system designed to cover up the government’s criminal activities.