BUDAPEST — Less than four weeks ago, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary won re-election after promising to seek “moral, political and legal amends” from his opponents.
Four days later, something strange started to happen in the Hungarian court system. A flurry of judges began resigning in quick succession from the National Judicial Council, the main bulwark against executive interference in the judiciary.
Mr. Orban’s party maintains there is nothing untoward about the departures. But his critics fear that the judges are resigning under pressure from allies of a newly emboldened Orban administration with the intent of further bringing the judiciary to heel.
“The situation wasn’t good before,” said Zsuzsa Sandor, a former senior judge, “but it’s now going to get worse.”
Most urgently, the National Judicial Council is scheduled on Wednesday to announce the results of an inquiry into allegations that one of Mr. Orban’s oldest friends and allies, Tunde Hando, has systematically packed the courts with loyalists in her role as chief of the judiciary for the past six years.
The sudden resignation of so many key council members may squelch the announcement, prevent the council from taking action against her, and free her hand even more.
If the council can no longer function properly, “then there’s no more hope that judges will be able to operate and rule independently,” Judge Sandor said. “It would mean that there are no more ways to control the work of Tunde Hando.”
The moves have alarmed some of Hungary’s roughly 3,000 judges, who have struggled to retain their autonomy since Mr. Orban won power in 2010 and began to turn Hungary into what he terms an illiberal state.
For the past eight years, Mr. Orban’s nativist policies, coupled with his autocratic instincts, have made him a hero to the leaders of the global far right, including President Trump’s former strategist Stephen K. Bannon.
Mr. Orban’s broadsides against Hungary’s democratic institutions, including its Constitution, electoral system and news media, have provided a template for other like-minded Western leaders — not least in Poland, whose government has mimicked many of his measures since 2015.
As part of those changes, the independence of the Hungarian court system has gradually been undermined but, to Mr. Orban’s frustration, never destroyed.
Newly galvanized by a bigger electoral mandate, Mr. Orban or his loyalists may now be able to change that — either by placing the judiciary under the direct control of the Justice Ministry, or by undermining the National Judicial Council.
Ms. Hando is an old friend of the prime minister’s, and her husband heads Mr. Orban’s caucus in the European Parliament. Because of changes made by Mr. Orban in 2011, she was subsequently made president of the National Judiciary Office.
In that role, Ms. Hando wields broad control over court finances, senior judicial appointments and disciplinary procedures, though her powers were slightly moderated following pressure from Europe’s leading rights watchdog.
Within the judiciary, her decisions can only be challenged by the National Judicial Council, a panel of 15 judges elected by their peers.
For years, the council did little to obstruct Ms. Hando’s activities. But after new members were elected in January, the council began to challenge her authority, announcing an investigation into her hiring practices.
Then Mr. Orban won the election. Four days later, Agnes Rendeki, a newly elected council member, stepped down for what she said were personal reasons. A second member followed the next day. And then the day after, a third.
Less than three weeks later, five council members had stepped down, as well as six reserves who could have taken their place. There are now conflicting assessments of whether the council has enough members to meet.
Istvan Lovas, a prominent commentator who supports Mr. Orban, said it was “ridiculous” to claim Ms. Hando had gamed the judiciary in favor of the government.
“I can give you many many examples that show that Hando appointed judges who are absolutely against Fidesz,” said Mr. Lovas, referring to Mr. Orban’s party. “Out of 10 decisions by the Hungarian courts, eight go toward the opposition.”
The controversy comes at a critical moment for Mr. Orban and Fidesz. Mr. Orban is due to meet on Wednesday with senior members of the European People’s Party, an alliance of conservative political parties to which Mr. Orban belongs, along with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor.
The leadership of the European People’s Party has done little to restrain Mr. Orban since 2010, but increasing numbers of its lawmakers in the European Parliament have had enough.
Should Mr. Orban fail to win them over on Wednesday, some of those lawmakers could vote to enforce disciplinary measures against Hungary in September, in a process known as the Article 7 procedure.
This might in turn prove off-putting to some foreign businesses, particularly German ones, which play an important role in the Hungarian economy, said Otilia Dhand, an analyst of Central and Eastern Europe at Teneo Intelligence, a financial and political consultancy.
“The courts will be a key part of the discussion on Wednesday,” said Dr. Dhand. If Mr. Orban is unconvincing, “it might increase the risk that Hungary faces an Article 7 procedure, which could have a knock-on effect on investors’ thinking.”
Mr. Orban’s case is helped by the fact that most of the judges who have resigned from the National Judicial Council have cited personal reasons for their decisions.
But the timing of their departures, as well as the speed at which they occurred, has led other Hungarian judges to wonder whether something more sinister was afoot.
Shortly before her resignation, for instance, Judge Rendeki was seen in tears following a meeting with Ms. Hando.
“Forced resignations may be too extreme an expression,” said Peter Szepeshazi, a serving judge who is frequently critical of how the Orban government has managed the judiciary. “But they may have been approached by people close to Tunde Hando, who may have conveyed the message that it would be best if they stopped.”
Asked whether they had been pressured into resigning, two of the five departing judges declined to comment, two did not respond, and the fifth — Judge Rendeki — stood by her original explanation.
Gergely Gulyas, the parliamentary leader of Mr. Orban’s party, released a brief statement suggesting that the council’s work was free of political interference.
“As judiciary in Hungary is independent, Fidesz does not have a position on recent resignations” from the council, he said in a message sent via a spokesperson.
Neither Ms. Hando nor Mr. Orban’s office responded to multiple requests for comment about both the resignations and her general conduct. Contacted by telephone, an official at the Justice Ministry asked for requests to be emailed, but did not respond to subsequent emails.
Suspicions have been raised about the resignations because Ms. Hando has the power to instigate disciplinary procedures against high-ranking judges — including several of those on the council — as well as overall control over who gets promoted to senior positions within the judiciary, and the resources given to their departments.
That might make some ambitious judges wary of crossing her, for fear of wrecking their careers, Judge Sandor said.
Before Mr. Orban took charge, senior judges were appointed by an autonomous panel. But though that is still nominally the case, Ms. Hando can in practice now reject the council’s choice, appoint her preferred candidate in an acting capacity for a year, and then install the person on a permanent basis.
Critics fear this process — which Ms. Hando embarked on 28 times throughout 2017 — will gradually allow her to install loyalists throughout the system.
“It’s not that they tell you what to rule in a particular case,” Judge Sandor said. “But how cases are assigned, how people are promoted, and how disciplinary proceedings are made against judges — all of that depends on Tunde Hando herself.”
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