Hungary opposition unites in challenge to government’s overhaul of courts

February 1, 2019

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Hungary’s often-divided opposition parties came together on Friday to urge the country’s top court to investigate an overhaul of the justice system, which they say could make it vulnerable to government influence.

The rare unified political front against Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government was forged by concerns about new administrative courts which, from January 2020, will hear cases about government business such as taxation and elections.

The justice minister will oversee its appointments and budget, which the opposition says is a conflict of interest.

Orban, whose Fidesz party came to power in 2010, has used a two-thirds majority in Parliament to solidify his power and erode democratic checks and balances with scant resistance from the opposition, which has mostly been weak and mired in infighting.

“The new law violates the principle of separation of powers,” five parliamentary opposition parties and several other MPs and politicians wrote in a joint press release, adding they would ask the Constitutional Court for a review.

Justice Minister Laszlo Trocsanyi has rejected concerns that the government would pack the new court with judges loyal to Orban’s government.

The government has said the courts would be independent and more efficient than generalist courts that currently handle state matters.

The Constitutional Court can theoretically veto the law or force Parliament to reconsider, but the body has rarely presented a real obstacle to lawmaking. Government spokesmen did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.

The court reforms helped ignite a string of street protests in Hungary late last year, with new rules expanding private sector overtime also provoking opposition grievances.

The protests have died down but brought opposition political parties together, prompting speculation about coordinated campaign efforts in European Parliament elections and a municipal vote due later this year.

Although several parties ultimately said they would go it alone for the European election campaign, the joint courts challenge shows the opposition cooperation continues in other areas.

“It is an important issue whether citizens can turn to an independent court when they want to enforce their rights against a state administrative body,” the opposition group wrote.

“The independence of courts means nothing but a chance to win against the state, an opportunity to take up a fight against the tyranny of those in power.”

In September the European Parliament voted to impose sanctions on Hungary for flouting EU rules on democracy, civil rights and corruption. Hungary rejected the accusations.

(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Toby Chopra)