Hungary Tests the E.U.'s Norms

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For Hungary, still seeking national accord on what constitutes democracy, and for Europe, still uncertain how to treat governments deemed to have strayed from European Union norms, Monday produced a symbolic moment in the annals of protecting civil rights.

On a state visit to Germany, President Janos Ader of Hungary visited a prison in Berlin where East Germany's dreaded secret police, the Stasi, held thousands of political prisoners, including some of the harshest critics of the now defunct Communist regime.

Back in Hungary, lawmakers from Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party and its small ally, the Christian Democrats, passed a lengthy amendment to the Constitution that critics, including human rights activists, the Council of Europe, the E.U. and the United States, fear could undermine the judiciary, silence criticism and threaten the checks and balances of democratic government.

"We are not yet North Korea, but this amendment is extremely alarming because it removes constitutional control and checks over the legislature," said Peter Hack, a leading professor of constitutional law at ELTE University in Budapest. "It is a bald and dangerous power grab."

While even the government's staunchest critics acknowledge that Hungary, an E.U. member, has put communism far behind it, thousands took to the streets of Budapest over the weekend to protest the changes, and the opposition Socialists boycotted the vote. Constitutional experts said that the amendment, passed in the 386-seat Parliament by 265 votes to 11, with 33 abstentions, will allow the government to reintroduce measures rejected by the constitutional court over the last 18 months.

These include a law requiring students who received state scholarships to stay in Hungary or pay them back if they leave; a ban on political advertising in private media; and a law allowing local authorities, in the name of public order, to fine or jail homeless people living on the street.

The passing of the amendment comes amid growing concerns that the center-right government of Mr. Orban, which has a two-thirds majority in Parliament and came to power in 2010, is trying to tighten its grip, including in the judiciary, the media, the central bank, education and even cultural life. It has laid bare the limits of the European Union in calling to account member states it fears have transgressed its democratic norms.

On Monday, the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, and the head of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland, issued a joint statement, saying that the amendments raised "concerns with respect to the principle of the rule of law, E.U. law and Council of Europe standards."

The United States has also sounded the alarm. Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said Thursday that the amendment "could threaten the principles of institutional independence and checks and balances that are the hallmark of democratic governance."

For some constitutional experts, the most egregious provision passed on Monday was an article stating that the constitutional court and the president, who signs legislation into law, are not allowed to examine the content of a constitutional amendment. Instead, they are limited to examining whether the procedure for passing the amendment complied with the law.

Ferenc Kumin, a government spokesman, rejected the criticism, saying that the overhaul of Hungary's Constitution was imperative to upgrade the outmoded previous charter, which was based on a Communist-era constitution rewritten in 1989 as a reformist government cast off Communist rule.

Mr. Hack and other constitutional experts noted that only one paragraph from the Communist-era constitution remained in the 1989 constitution, and it stated that Budapest was the capital of Hungary.

"We cannot have a rational discussion on the basis of critics questioning our democratic norms or based on nonsense arguments," Mr. Kumin said. "We believe all of the contents of the amendment can be defended." He added that the government had crafted the amendment to take into account some of the constitutional court's criticism.

Yet critics complain of encroaching centralization.

On March 1, Mr. Orban appointed a close ally, Gyorgy Matolcsy, formerly the economics minister, to head the central bank, fanning fears that the bank would lose its independence. Mr. Orban had repeatedly clashed with the previous central bank governor Andras Simor, who was appointed by the Socialists, and had refused to heed the government's call for a looser monetary policy.

Mr. Orban's government has also come under sharp criticism for revising Hungary's media laws, including the creation of a powerful Media Council which, among other things, is responsible for allocating radio frequencies, and is stacked with Orban supporters, appointed for nine-year terms.

At 49, Mr. Orban, an athletic father of five, is one of Central Europe's most powerful and charismatic politicians.

He became famous in 1989 when, as a opposition leader, he called for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary, articulating the aspirations of the entire region. He served as prime minister from 1998 to 2002, lobbying for Hungary to join the European Union, and seeking to overturn the old communist order, before narrowly losing power to the Socialists and being consigned to opposition for eight years.

Ever since his party won its stunning victory in 2010, analysts said he had shown a determination to do whatever was necessary to hold on to power, abetted by a weak opposition. A populist, he has tapped into Hungarian disillusionment with a lackluster economy by railing against the Union and the International Monetary Fund.

"Orban is hungry for power," said Andras Kosa, a journalist with the online version of HVG, a center-left weekly economic and political magazine. "The Fidesz government thinks it is best to rule as many sectors of Hungarian life as possible. They think they know what is best for everyone."

Dan Bilefsky reported from Budapest and Paris; Melissa Eddy contributed reporting from Berlin.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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