BUDAPEST Tens of thousands of Hungarians protested in Budapest on Monday against the government and its new Basic Law in a show of anxiety over what they see as the ruling Fidesz party's moves to weaken democratic institutions and cement its powers.
Centre-right Fidesz, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, won a two-thirds majority in elections in 2010 and has rewritten a large body of law since, drawing accusations at home and abroad that it has undermined democratic checks and balances.
The Basic Law, which replaced the previous constitution as of January 1, recasts rules governing many walks of life in what Fidesz calls a completion of a democratization process that started in 1989 when communism collapsed.
Parliament forged ahead with the legislation despite a plea from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for a rethink and a letter from European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso asking Orban to withdraw two key bills.
The dispute has cast doubt over talks with the European Union and IMF about a new financing agreement, seen as crucial for Hungary to shore up market confidence.
Popular discontent has added to pressure on Orban's government, and some 30,000 protesters gathered outside the Budapest Opera House to voice their disquiet as Fidesz and government leaders arrived for a gala celebrating the Basic Law.
Sandor Szekely, co-chairman of the Solidarity movement which organised the rally, told Reuters the heavy-handed ways of the government had generated unprecedented opposition unity and cooperation between political and civilian activist groups.
"It looks like a real coalition is in the making," Szekely said. "This Basic Law basically unwinds the checks and balances that we created in 1989. If we manage to replace this government and its system, we will have to revert to 1989 once again.
"If they hadn't ruined the economy along with democratic values, the anger might be less intense, but they systematically ruin everyone, so people are enraged," he said.
Opposition liberal and Socialist MPs were detained by police in a protest late last month.
Critics say the new laws curtail the jurisdiction of the Constitutional Court in key matters like the budget, rewrite the electoral system in a way that favors Fidesz, and could erode the independence of the central bank.
A new media law also drew strong criticism and journalist protests recently. The new Basic Law will also allow Fidesz appointees to control key public institutions well beyond the government's electoral term.
Fidesz politicians have been adamant that the Basic Law improves the legal framework of life in Hungary.
"Despite political debates we think it is an important value that for the first time, a freely elected parliament created the Basic Law," said Gergely Gulyas, a Fidesz MP who co-wrote the legislation and guided it through the assembly.
"It is absolutely suitable to being the yardstick by which life is measured. While it is important for the government to reassure international leaders about its intentions, criticism has mostly concerned areas where they have no jurisdiction."
Fidesz's public support dropped to 18 percent last month but the fragmented opposition has been unable to capitalise, leaving 54 percent of voters with no party to support. Analysts have said grassroots movements could fill that void.
They have also said the government must change course or risk leaving the country isolated at a time when it needs all the support it can get to remain able to refinance its debt.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)