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Hungary: Constitutional changes limit powers of top court and president

The fourth change to the country’s constitution since Viktor Orban took power three years ago will also define family as ‘marriage between man and woman’.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Image: Bilal Hussein/AP/Press Association Images

HUNGARY’S PARLIAMENT HAS stoked concerns about creeping authoritarianism in the European Union member state by altering the constitution for the fourth time since Prime Minister Viktor Orban won power in 2010.

The changes, which sparked concerns in Brussels and Washington and provoked protests in Budapest, curb the powers of Hungary’s top court and reintroduce controversial measures its judges rendered void in recent months.

The European Commission and the Council of Europe reacted immediately, saying the amendments “raise concerns with respect to the principle of the rule of law, EU law and Council of Europe standards”.

Hours before the vote, an EU spokeswoman had said Brussels would act to ensure EU laws are complied with by member states.

Brussels has clashed with Orban over a whole series of issues, including media freedom and control over both the constitutional court and central bank since the right-wing politician swept to power three years ago.

Washington had also expressed misgivings about the new constitutional re-write, with the State Department saying that it deserves “closer scrutiny and more deliberate consideration”.

But Hungary’s Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi said that Budapest was acting fairly: If anything is contrary to EU law, we will find a solution. In all cases, about whatever, whenever, with whomever, we are ready to talk”.

Martonyi told reporters in Brussels that the government would ask the Venice Commission, an advisory body to the Council of Europe, to give its opinion, state news agency MTI reported.

Council of Europe head Thorbjorn Jagland had asked Hungary to refrain from approving the changes until the Venice Commission had studied the legislation.

Fundamental Law

The changes passed by parliament, where Orban’s Fidesz party has a two-thirds majority, mean that the constitutional court will no longer be able to void a law endorsed with a two-thirds parliamentary majority and enshrined in the constitution.

It was the fourth amendment of Hungary’s constitution, called the Fundamental Law, since it came into force on January 1, 2012, replacing the previous one which was deemed a relic of the communist era by Orban’s party.

The constitutional court will now only be able to review and judge future amendments on procedural grounds, not on their content. The president will no longer have a veto and will be obliged to sign amendments, except when there is an objection on procedural grounds.

Other changes include allowing party political broadcasts only on state media, committing students who receive state aid to remain in Hungary after graduation for a certain period, and a ban on sleeping on the streets.

The amendment also enshrines a definition of the family as “marriage between man and woman”, a clause the court previously threw out for being “too narrow” and discriminating against other forms of partnership.

It also allows parliament to decide on the legal status of religious communities.

The government insists the package of changes — the so-called “fourth amendment” — is mostly technical, but opponents claim they accelerate an assault on democratic institutions.

Attila Mesterhazy, head of the Socialists, the largest opposition party, said Orban’s aim was to “take revenge on the constitutional court, students, opposition parties, and all those who do not do as the government wishes”. His party boycotted the vote.

Several dozen protestors occupied the compound of the Fidesz party headquarters last Thursday to protest the amendments they charge infringe on civil rights, while on Saturday several thousand people staged a protest close to parliament.

- © AFP, 2013

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