April 15, 2011 / 10:59 AM / 8 years ago

Protests ahead of vote on new Hungary constitution

* Parliament to vote on new constitution on April 18.

* Civil society groups plan protest in Budapest

* Rights groups say new law will weaken checks and balances

By Marton Dunai

BUDAPEST, April 15 (Reuters) - Thousands were to protest on Friday against the ruling Fidesz party’s overhaul of Hungary’s constitution next week, which critics say will weaken democratic checks and balances even if it improves state finances.

Organisers, who have mobilised via the Facebook social network website, say civil society groups were not consulted over the changes, which Fidesz is expected to ram through on Monday courtesy of its two-thirds majority in parliament.

Since sweeping to power a year ago, Fidesz has not shied away from taking bold measures, including a hefty bank tax, grabbing private pension assets or a hotly disputed media law which drew the ire of the European Union.

Rewriting Hungary’s Communist-era constitution has been a long-held ambition of Fidesz, which says the new text will complete the democratisation process that started in 1989.

The text approved on Monday will come into force on Jan. 1, 2012 but a raft of subsidiary legislation must also be passed by a two-thirds majority.

Civil society groups say the governing party should have consulted far more widely when rewriting the country’s basic law, and complain they will be disenfranchised if Fidesz uses its huge majority to ram the changes through.

“Our problem is the lack of dialogue,” said Balazs Bodo, spokesman of the protest organisers who coordinate dozens of civil groups. “The text of the constitution was made public in mid-March... That’s one month ago. That’s an insane timeframe.”

The Venice Commission, the EU’s constitutional law advisory body, said on March 28 that the rapid adoption of the constitution raised concerns.

“These include the lack of transparency of the process and the distribution of a public draft of the new constitution only on 14 March 2011, a few weeks before its planned adoption, shortcomings in the dialogue between the majority and the opposition, the insufficient opportunities for an adequate public debate on such a fundamental process,” it said.

The constitution will allow the government to grant voting rights to ethnic Hungarians living outside Hungary’s borders; curb the powers of the top court on budget matters and allow the president to dissolve parliament if a budget is not approved by April.

The text also stipulates that marriage is between a man and a woman, thus ruling out same-sex marriages. And it expands the areas requiring a two-thirds majority in parliament to come into force to include pensions, taxation rules and laws governing the central bank. That potentially makes it extremely difficult for any subsequent government to undo Fidesz’ reforms.

The text also imposes a primary budget surplus if the public debt exceeds 50 percent of gross domestic product — a move which investors, concerned over Hungary’s notoriously high public debt, have welcomed. [ID:nLDE7292N9].

The debt is currently running at around 80 pct of GDP, the highest in central and eastern Europe. Fidesz has not set out a timetable to reach the 50 percent limit.

OPPOSITION BOYCOTT

Analysts and human rights groups say Fidesz is nakedly attempting to use its huge majority to entrench its grip on power.

“The Fundamental Law of Hungary is the product of one political party,” the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and the Eotvos Karoly Public Policy Institute said in a joint statement.

“(It) undermines democratic political competition and makes political change more difficult by transforming institutional structures, (and) weakens the system of checks and balances.”

The opposition Socialists and green liberal LMP parties boycotted the drafting process, saying it was pointless taking part as Fidesz refused to listen to their arguments.

Fidesz’s Jozsef Szajer, the new constitution’s chief architect, said the opposition had failed in its duty by not offering an alternative text.

“The majority can decide what priorities to articulate because voters authorised it to do so,” Szajer told Reuters, adding there had been sufficient time to debate the new law.

But Peter Kreko at think-tank Political Capital said the short timeframe for consultations the and parliamentary debate could raise questions later about the legitimacy of the text.

“We can’t say this constitution is based on national consensus,” he said.

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