Opponents of the judical reform often make comparisons between the process that Hungary went through and what will happen in Israel after the end of the legislation promoted by Levin's opponent • But in Israel there is one, very strong mechanism that distinguishes us from these countries and limits the power of the elected officials.
Countries, like people, are very different from one another: they vary in their political culture, constitutional arrangements and the political balance of power. It is important to learn from these differences and the experience of others. Opponents of legal reform often point to Hungary, where constitutional changes took place that led to a violation of human rights and democracy, as evidence that a reform of the legal system will result in the supremacy of the government without any checks and balances which will result in a violation of democracy and human rights. So what exactly happened in Hungary, and is there indeed a danger that Israel will go through a similar process?
Since the beginning of the nineties and the fall of communism in the country, Hungary has been a parliamentary democracy. The general elections in Hungary are based on two ballots, one for the election of one representative from the 106 electoral districts and the other for selection on a national list. In the 2010 elections, Viktor Orban’s party won a majority of over 2/3 in the parliament, which enabled him to reform the electoral mechanism. He redrew the constituencies in the country in a way that greatly benefited the coalition and maintained its majority in the parliament. The government rejected any request to balance the districts in order to maintain equal representation and fairness. As a result, densely populated districts where many opposition supporters were concentrated got to elect one representative, just like other sparsely populated but Orban-supporting districts. Thus, in the 2022 elections, the Hungarian ruling party won 52% of the votes in the district
representative elections, but 82% of the parliamentary seats. As a result, even after accounting for the members of parliament elected in the national lists, Viktor Orban’s party enjoyed a majority of over 2/3 of the parliament, while its total voter turnout was only slightly over 50%.
The unrestrained control of a single ruling party in parliament gives it great power. It can change laws without needing other parties at all. This power allows the parliament to violate civil rights and freedom of expression.
Unlike Hungary, where the election mechanism is designed in an unequal way, in Israel all members of the Knesset are elected through national lists in a multi-party system that increases representation in the Knesset. The variety of positions represented in the Knesset allows for decentralization of power. In the current government, the ruling party had to give up senior portfolios to their partners. Israel will face the danger of “Hungarianization” if one party alone holds more than half of the seats in the Knesset, based on a non-representative election system.
And what about the judiciary? After the fall of communism in the 1990s, the independent judicial system was established in Hungary and the National Judicial Council was established, whose role was to manage the legal system.
As part of the enactment of the new constitution in Hungary in 2011, the administration of the judicial system was entrusted to the President of the National Bureau of the Judiciary (NOJ) who was appointed to his position by the Parliament. He was entrusted with determining the procedures of the courts and was involved in the appointment of judges, including those who will preside over proceedings against the government, and even interfering with their salaries through the power to give judges monetary grants without clear criteria.. The judges are united within the framework of the National Council of Judges, whose role is to supervise the work of the President of the National Chamber of the Judiciary. However, the supervisory authority is not accompanied by effective veto powers.
The move made in Hungary had far-reaching effects on judicial independence: in fact, one party that controls the parliament appoints the president of the NOJ and through him they strongly influence judgements and decision-making in the judicial system.
So, what can be learned from Hungary?
Democracy is a dynamic system of government in which the people can replace their leaders at will. The electoral system in Hungary has always given emphasis to the regional elections that enable governmental stability by empowering the major parties. Today, however, thanks to the manipulation of constituencies, the country is ruled by a single party that holds an absolute majority in parliament even though it represents only about fifty percent of the electorate. Thus one party rules an uninhibited and disproportionate government.
Those of us in Israel are used to complaining about the lack of “governmental stability”. From Orban’s Hungary we can learn that instability is better than unlimited power. The politicians in Israel are forced to demonstrate flexibility and pragmatism and create coalitions that contain sharp contrasts.
The judiciary in Israel is completely independent, in contrast to the Hungarian one which suffers from the active involvement of the parliament and the government. In many democracies, governments appoint judges, but they perform their duties completely independently because appointments are permanent until they retire.
Even after the reform, the judiciary in Israel will remain independent and strong and will return to its important role – deciding disputes and enforcing the rule of law, while the elected authorities will deal with making public decisions and reaching agreements and compromises that will allow us to continue living here all together.
The article was first published in the N12