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BUDAPEST: Rare scenes of chaos gripped the Hungarian parliament on Wednesday as it passed a controversial judicial reform, as well as labour legislation that critics call a “slave law”.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban attended the session during which opposition lawmakers blew whistles, sounded sirens and blocked access to the speaker’s podium in an effort to prevent votes from taking place.

Orban’s right-wing Fidesz party won a third consecutive two-thirds parliamentary majority at an election in April and habitually steamrollers bills through the assembly.

But speaker Laszlo Kover, a loyal Orban ally, had to open Wednesday’s session from the floor rather than the podium with opposition MPs accusing Fidesz counterparts of “unlawful” voting by breaking a series of technical rules.

The opposition’s “attempt at obstruction was unprecedented in 28 years of Hungarian democracy”, Kover said later.

Tabled by Fidesz lawmakers, the controversial labour code change hikes the maximum annual overtime hours that employers can demand from 250 to 400 hours.

It also triples the time period for calculating overtime payments to three years.

The government argues the changes will benefit both those wanting to work more hours and employers who need more manpower.

But trade unions and opposition parties have demanded the scrapping of what they call the “slave law”.

Polls have also indicated that over two-thirds of Hungarians oppose the measures.

Also adopted amid Wednesday’s chaotic voting was the setting-up of new “administrative courts” to oversee sensitive public administration cases, involving for example elections or public procurement.

The justice minister Laszlo Trocsanyi, another Orban ally, would oversee the courts, leading some to warn of near-total political influence over the judicial system.

Trocsanyi has downplayed fears and insisted the courts, to be set up by January 2020, will make the judicial system more efficient.

But the new courts are another “serious threat to the rule of law in Hungary”, according to prominent rights group the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.

Published in Dawn, December 13th, 2018