'Destroying Democracy' Hungarians Protest Controversial New Constitution

Tens of thousands of Hungarians took to the streets of Budapest on Monday night to protest the country's new constitution, which took effect on Jan. 1. The document, in combination  with other recent laws, severely curtails the independence of the country's central bank and courts. Religious rights have also been slashed.

REUTERS

"Viktor Orban. Dictator!" read one sign. "Enough!" screamed another. "Hey Europe, sorry about my prime minister," said a third. And there were hundreds more on Monday night in Budapest as tens of thousands of people gathered in front of the city's famous opera house to protest against the country's controversial new constitution, which went into effect on Jan. 1.

"The prime minister took an oath to defend the constitution, but instead he overthrew it," said Laszlo Majtenyi, the former head of the country's media authority, at the rally. "Tonight, the Opera is the home of hypocrisy and the street the home of constitutional virtues."

The crowd gathered outside as inside Prime Minister Viktor Orban and other leading government officials celebrated the new Basic Law inside the opera. Hungarian President Pal Schmitt defended the document, saying that his countrymen should be proud of it. "The constitution was born of a wide consultation, building on national and European values," he said in a speech at the celebration. "Our Basic Law defines the family, order, the home, work and health as the most important, shared scale of values."

The passage of the new constitution marks the crowning achievement of Orban's center-right Fidesz party, 18 months into its rule. The party won 53 percent of the vote in the spring of 2010, resulting in 68 percent of the seats in parliament, enough to radically change Hungary's legal landscape. Since then, according to Kim Lane Scheppele, director of Princeton University's Program in Law and Public Affairs and a long-time observer of Hungary, Fidesz has passed 359 laws.

A Scathing Critique

Many of them, say critics, have been aimed at eliminating constitutional guarantees, including press freedoms, and solidifying Fidesz's hold on power. "This Basic Law basically unwinds the checks and balances that we created in 1989," Sandor Szekely, co-head of the Solidarity movement which organized Monday night's rally, told Reuters.

Also on Monday, a prominent group of former political dissidents who struggled against Communist rule prior to 1989 published a scathing critique of the Orban government and the new constitution. "Viktor Orban's government is intent on destroying the democratic rule of law, removing checks and balances, and pursuing a systemic policy of closing autonomous institutions, including those of civil society, with the potential to criticize its omnipotence," the open letter reads. "Never since the regime change of 1989 when the Communist dictatorship was crushed has there been such an intense concentration of power in the region as in present-day Hungary."

In the weeks prior to the New Year, both United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso wrote to Orban to request that he rethink portions of the constitution or other key bills that his party sought to pass.

The European Union is most concerned about new laws relating to the Hungarian Central Bank (Magyar Nemzeti Bank or MNB). Indeed, both the EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently broke off negotiations with Budapest over possible financial assistance due to concern over the independence of the MNB. The new legislation grants the prime minister the right to name all bank vice presidents, essentially leaving the president of the bank no say in the matter. Furthermore, the committee which sets monetary policy has been expanded, with new members to be appointed by the Fidesz-run government.

Far-Reaching Consequences

Potentially more damaging, the new constitution grants parliament the right to merge the central bank with a financial oversight authority, the head of which would then be appointed by the government. Were the Orban government to take advantage of the provision, it would mean that the supposedly independent central bank president would have to answer to an Orban-appointed superior.

The changes to the central bank are critical as Hungary continues to struggle in its effort to avoid succumbing to the European debt crisis. Though not part of the euro zone, Hungary has run into substantial problems in recent months and has had to pay astronomical returns of close to 10 percent on sovereign bond offerings. IMF disapproval of the new central bank laws could have far-reaching consequences.

But the new constitution also lengthens the government reach elsewhere as well. Whereas the country's Constitutional Court struck down portions of a law passed late last year which would have curtailed judicial independence, the government simply wrote the new provisions into the new constitution. Now, not only has the Constitutional Court been weakened, but Hungary's public prosecutor may choose which judge hears what cases.

'A Scandal'

Furthermore, the new constitution includes almost unchanged most of a law pertaining to religious life in Hungary, one which had been struck down by the Constitutional Court in December. The provision essentially withdraws official recognition -- and tax exempt status -- from over 300 religious denominations. Included on the new black list: Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, several Catholic orders, Episcopalians, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Methodists and others.

Others have criticized the constitution's provisions establishing a new 16 percent flat tax for all levels of income and, later, for businesses as well. Other articles relating to minority rights have likewise been singled out.

Germany's opposition Social Democrats, in particular, have been outspoken. The document, Rolf Mützenich, the SPD's parliamentary spokesman on foreign affairs, told the German news agency DPA on Monday, is "a break with democratic traditions and legal standards in Europe. The annulment of powers belonging to the Constitutional Court, the questioning of minority decisions and the disregard of minority rights is a scandal."

cgh -- with wire reports

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