* Brussels raises concerns over proposed amendments
* Forint plunges to 9-month lows against euro
* Critics say changes erode system of checks and balances
* EU has limited influence on member states
By Krisztina Than and Marton Dunai
BUDAPEST, March 11 Hungary's ruling party is set
to push through law changes on Monday that critics say will
limit the powers of the constitutional court, one of the few
institutions that has stood up to Viktor Orban, the combative
Parliament, dominated by Orban's party, was scheduled to
vote on a set of government-backed constitutional amendments,
despite warnings from the European Union, the U.S. government
and human rights groups that the changes could undermine
Since taking power with a super-majority in parliament in
2010, Orban has pushed through changes that Brussels says risk
undermining the independence of the media, central bank,
judiciary and other institutions.
The dispute underscores the limited ability of the European
Union to rein in its members, even when Brussels believes they
risk breaching the EU's founding principles of rule of law and
respect for human rights.
Orban's loyalists launched a counter-attack on Monday,
saying the real issue was that Hungary was making foreign power
companies cut the prices they charge households, so angering
powerful international business interests.
"Hungary won't just let this happen," Antal Rogan, head of
the parliamentary faction of Orban's Fidesz party, said in a
speech in the chamber on Monday.
"We won't allow either any international business lobby or
the political forces that speak on their behalf to interfere
with the decisions of the Hungarian parliament."
The forint currency fell more than one percent
against the euro to new 9-month lows because of concerns about
the vote in parliament and steps by Orban to cement his control
over the central bank.
At the weekend, several thousand Orban opponents protested
in the capital against the changes to the constitution, and a
new protest was planned for Monday evening. The opposition
though is too weak and divided to mount a serious challenge.
Parliamentary officials said that the vote on the
constitutional amendments was on the legislature's timetable for
Monday afternoon. Legislators did not heed appeals from the EU
and others for a postponement.
AUTOCRAT OR DEMOCRAT?
The package of changes has revived suspicions among Orban's
opponents, and some foreign states, that the 49-year-old prime
minister is eroding Hungary's system of checks and balances so
he can rule without challenge.
A powerfully built, soccer-playing father of five who came
to prominence as a handsome young democracy activist in the last
days of Communist rule, Orban is charismatic, very intelligent
and forceful, say people who have met him.
He has already been accused of risking economic stability
after imposing hefty "crisis taxes" on foreign-owned businesses,
of stacking institutions with his loyalists, and of stoking
nationalist sentiment to win votes.
Orban's government denies doing anything undemocratic. It
says it has the right to use its parliamentary mandate to reform
a constitution it calls a hangover from Communist rule.
The planned amendments include allowing the court to
challenge laws only on procedural grounds, not on their
substance, and scrapping all decisions made by the court before
2012, discarding a body of case law often used as reference.
The focus on the court is significant because earlier this
year it blocked a Fidesz proposal to change voter registration
rules. That was one of the few occasions when Orban has been
forced to drop one of his initiatives.
Asked about the vote in the Hungarian parliament, German
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said on Monday European
countries should respect the continent's values.
"It is not only about constitutions and rights, written on
paper - one has to live up to it," he said in Brussels.
In a phone call on Friday, European Commission President
Jose Manuel Barroso told Orban that his government and the
parliament should address concerns "in accordance with EU
But the outside world's levers of influence on Hungary are
limited. Its biggest vulnerability has been its status as
central Europe's most indebted nation. But earlier this month
the government sold $3.25 billon worth of bonds, removing any
need to call on Brussels or the International Monetary Fund for
financial help in the near term.