It may be too simplistic to say that Hungary's fate is in the hands of the courts. But the court cases around the government-mandated, 10 percent reduction in energy prices that took effect 1 January will show how far the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban is willing to go to ensure its advantage a year before parliamentary elections.
This all takes place against the background of a wider dispute about a new constitutional amendment between the governing Fidesz party on the one hand and the opposition and the European Union on the other hand.
A commentary last week in the daily Nepszabadsag was fairly accurate: Orban's team has managed to divert the attention of the media and the public from the debate around the constitutional amendment to the discussion about the judicial decisions on energy prices. That is a very sensitive topic for Hungarians and, as polls show, reducing prices boosts Fidesz’s popularity.
Recent research by the Ipsos agency indicates that support for Fidesz has risen and that the number of voters who do not plan to vote has sharply decreased. A year before the elections, 44 percent of voters don't plan to cast a ballot, while last year the figure was 55 percent. Today, Fidesz would again win, although not with the absolute majority the party currently enjoys. The last time Fidesz had such high numbers, hovering around 45 percent of likely voters, was in the summer of 2011.
The opposition Socialists would end up far behind in second place, followed by the nationalist Jobbik party. “Together 2014” landed in fourth place; that's the movement of former Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, which is changing itself into a political party and negotiating about cooperation with the Socialists.
In other words, Orban has it all well thought-out. While state regulators will fight the legal battles with individual companies – drawing the attention of the media, the business community, and foreign observers – the constitutional amendment, which significantly limits the powers of the Constitutional Court, will enter into force. In addition, the amendment will lead to the cancellation of previous decisions of the Constitutional Court that were disadvantageous for Orban.
And beyond that, as some of the Hungarian media pointed out, even if regulators lose those lawsuits over energy prices, Orban could, with the help of a two-thirds majority in parliament, push through the price cuts. That’s thanks to a law passed last week allowing regulators to determine prices without the possibility of a court appeal, except to the Constitutional Court.
The prime minister called the court decision in favor of the energy prices scandalous. He said companies that earned billions in Hungary have united with “anti-Hungarian forces,” and that even if they prevail in court, they should not be able to recover from Hungarian consumers the 10 percent cut that was forced on them in January.
There’s a simple logic behind this somewhat confusing situation: Faced with a stubborn recession, Fidesz is trying to woo back voters by giving them something they can feel in their wallets. And a fight laden with nationalist undertones against foreign firms, between a two-thirds parliamentary majority and a weak and increasingly uncertain judiciary seems a sure bet – especially after an overreaching amendment to the year-old constitution tames the Constitutional Court.
The traditional liberal-democratic distribution of political power among the executive, parliament, and judiciary really does take on an interesting flavor in Orban's Hungary.