Hungarians cry foul as new Constitution comes into effect

Tens of thousands of Hungarians turned out to protest what they say is a slide into authoritarianism as a result of new laws and a new Constitution.

Bela Szandelszky/AP
Hungarians protest against Prime Minister Viktor Orban and against the country's new constitution in Budapest, Hungary, Monday. Tens of thousands gathered together in support of opposition parties and civic groups near the State Opera, where Hungary's top leaders attended a gala celebrating the new constitution on Monday night.

Tens of thousands of Hungarians turned out last night to protest what they say is a country dressed up as a democracy but sliding into authoritarian rule. The demonstration came a day after a controversial new Constitution went into effect – one that is likely to deepen chasms between the European Union and this former communist state in the heart of Europe.

A wide swath of Hungarian opposition and civil society groups, including former communist-era dissidents, gathered outside Budapest's Opera House, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban and members of the ruling party Fidesz celebrated the new Constitution to classical music strains performed by the national orchestra. They held signs reading “Europe, We are sorry about our Prime Minister" and shouted “Dictator, dictator”; "Orban, get away!"; "Cowards!"; and "Victator!" 

Hungary’s Constitution is part of an extraordinary consolidation of power over the past year by Mr. Orban in nearly every area of public life. Many of the changes went by unnoticed in the spring, when Hungary held the rotating presidency of the EU.

Since that time, journalists in Budapest have gone on hunger strikes, the constitutional committee added wording “recognizing the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood,” and Orban replaced the director of the national theater with a playwright from the far-right Jobbik party who is professedly anti-Semitic.

Yesterday, a coterie of prominent Soviet-era dissidents signed a petition lamenting the shutting down of “autonomous” institutions in Hungary and called on the EU not to “sit back and watch as [Hungary] is being held hostage by an outdated, provincial tyrant."

In December, both EU officials and the US State Department raised questions about Hungary’s development as a democracy with checks and balances, civil society norms, and free expression, even as Mr. Orban carefully placed Fidesz party loyalists into newly created positions. 

Whether the EU, already in a debt and leadership crisis, has any leverage to deal with Hungary’s recent direction is so far unclear.

“Viktor Orban claims he’s a strong captain, but he’s the captain of the Titanic, headed for the iceberg,” declared Peter Konya, who as head of the Hungarian Solidarity Movement organized the Monday evening demonstrations. “We must join our forces to restore the rule of law and the republic.” 

With the Fidesz party's absolute majority in the Hungarian parliament, protestors face an uphill battle. Hungarian diplomats describe a country that, 20 years after the end of communism, is still in recovery. Political positions and spoils are bread-and-butter issues that ensure income and a way of life.

Under the new Constitution (which refers to “Hungary” rather than the “Republic of Hungary”), judicial independence has been dismantled through court-packing and by disallowing judicial review of new laws. The number of recognized churches is reduced from 348 to 14. Press freedoms are stunted by new laws allowing heavy fines for critical or independent media that do not provide “balanced coverage.” Four Hungarian TV journalists went on a hunger strike last month in response. New laws governing elections allow for gerrymandering in ways that favor Fidesz. The Constitution even permits the dismantling of the opposition Socialist party on grounds of a legal connection to the former Soviet party.

“In a democracy, the population can ‘throw the bums out’ and replace the government with a different one that can change the policies that do not have public support. But that will be nearly impossible under this Constitution,” argues Kim Lane Scheppele, who heads a law and public affairs section at Princeton University and is a specialist in comparative constitutional law. The Constitution “has transformed the legal landscape to remove checks on the power of the government and put virtually all power into the hands of the current governing party for the foreseeable future," she says. 

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