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Controversial judiciary reform, overtime laws passed

Legislative proposals pertaining to both judicial reform and overtime rules were passed in todayʼs parliamentary session in Budapest, among other proposals, despite a number of obstruction efforts by opposition MPs in Parliament, with some calling the legitimacy of the votes into question due to procedural irregularities. 

The main debating chamber of the Hungarian Parliament on a more orderly occasion.

After days of intensive debate, todayʼs session began with opposition MPs of the Socialists, Párbeszéd and DK, as well as independent MPs, physically occupying the lectern and podium in Parliament in an effort to prevent the opening of the dayʼs agenda. The actions of the opposition were broadcast live by Párbeszéd MP Bence Tordai from the floor.

According to a report by Hungarian news site index.hu, Speaker of the National Assembly László Kövér (Fidesz) opened the session from his own seat on the floor, instead of the lectern, where speakers usually do. After the opening, Deputy Speaker János Latorcai (KDNP) took over speaking duties, amidst loud whistles from the opposition.

Voting on a variety of proposals then took place, with most opposition MPs refusing to participate. Tordai also showed in his broadcast how voting machines were fully operational without the insertion of MPsʼ identification cards, which he claimed rendered the voting process illegitimate as theoretically anyone was able to press any button on any MPʼs machine, voting in place of the actual person to which the seat belongs.

Separation of powers

One of the dayʼs most hotly debated topics was the reform proposal for the establishment of a system of administrative courts.

Index.hu observed that the law is aimed at increasing the political responsibility of Minister of Justice László Trócsányi over the operation of administrative adjudication. The law will grant the minister budgetary control over new courts, influence over tenders for judicial positions, the final say in appointments of judges and court presidents, as well as competence to decide regarding promotions and salary raises of individual judges.

The part of the legislation on administrative courts requiring a qualified majority was passed with a vote of 131 for, three against, and no abstentions, while the part requiring a simple majority was passed with a vote of 130 for, three against and no abstentions.     Separate legislation also approved by lawmakers set January 1, 2020, as the date for the start of the administrative courtsʼ operation.

Index.hu cited human rights NGO the Hungarian Helsinki Committee as saying that the new legislation violates the separation of powers and puts the independence of the judiciary at direct risk due to the unprecedented power the minister will have over staffing and payroll decisions.

"Such a personal dependence on ministerial decisions poses a risk that loyalty to the government might mean better career opportunities, making it harder for independent and uncorrupted judges to get ahead professionally," index.hu cited the Hungarian Helsinki Committee as saying.

Voting amid chaos

Despite constant attempts at interrupting with whistles, megaphones, and siren noises, on top of the lingering question of MPsʼ ID cards, government coalition MPs continued voting on proposals, including legislation that allows tenants residing in homes owned by National Asset Management Zrt. to buy back their former properties at a discounted price, as well as a vote to conduct Hungaryʼs next census in 2021. All proposals were passed.

Meanwhile, President of the Republic János Áder also arrived in Parliament, to be welcomed by the chaos caused by disapproving noises of the opposition, applause from government MPs, and a group of opposition representatives running up the stairs to confront him as he took his seat. Áder was in the House to be present at the election of members of the National Election Commission (NVB), according to a report by Hungarian news portal hvg.hu.

The most controversial legislative proposal related to the increase in the allowed amount of overtime working hours. The legislation raises the permitted maximum overtime allocable by employers from 250 hours to 400 hours per year, and extends the period employers may account overtime for the purpose of calculating wages and rest days from twelve months to three years.

Unions have protested the planned changes to the labor code, holding a large demonstration in Budapest last Saturday, but the government argued that the changes would serve the interests of workers for whom choosing to work extra hours would be voluntary. Hungary is in the midst of labor shortages which are severe in some sectors, state news wire MTI noted in its reporting.

Most opposition representatives did vote when the proposal became the topic on the dayʼs agenda, while still trying to make noise and obstruct the voting process. In the end, the proposal was passed with 130 for, 52 against, and one abstention, with 15 MPs not voting at all. After the motion passed, opposition MPs left the chamber.

Commenting on the passage of the amendments to overtime rules after the sitting, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was cited by MTI as telling journalists the law "is a good one and will do good for workers."

"I pay attention to everybody, especially the trade unions. I follow their opinions, I respect their freedom to express their opinions, and I always consider the arguments they make. In this case, I think the weight of the points [unions] raised was far less than the weight of the proposed legislation," Orbán said.

Speaking in Parliament earlier on Tuesday, Orbán claimed the amendments aim to support mainly employees of SMEs who wish to work more but cannot, at present, because of "silly bureaucratic hurdles."

Multiple political parties have announced demonstrations against the new overtime legislation, dubbed by critics the "slave law," according to online news site 444.hu. Momentum called a protest in front of the Parliament building at 4 p.m. today, with Jobbik planning a march to the Sándor Palace (the residence of the President of the Republic), together with closing a bridge, "to appeal to János Áder not to sign the law into effect."