Wed, Mar 13, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Hungary to insert formerly unconstitutional laws into constitution

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is pushing for an ‘institutional overhaul’ which will make opposition to his Fidesz party more difficult than ever

By Pablo Gorondi  /  AP, BUDAPEST, Hungary

Since 2010, for example, the government has nationalized about US$14 billion in assets earlier administered by private pension funds, and introduced the EU’s highest bank tax and value-added tax rates, as well as levies on financial transactions and telephone calls.

Hungary also has a flat income tax rate of 16 percent and, to help counter a rapidly aging population, substantial tax breaks for families with children.

Orban says the institutional overhaul is needed to break the influence of former communists. The new constitution replaces one based on a Stalin-era constitution that was rewritten in 1989, when the country threw off communist rule.

By including legislation in the constitution that earlier had been struck down as unconstitutional, the new amendment — the fourth since the constitution, or Fundamental Law, as it is called, took effect in January last year — makes it clear that Orban will accept no setbacks and that the decisions of his parliamentary majority should not be questioned.

That attitude is also expressed in one of the key articles of the amendment, which says the country’s president, who signs all legislation into law, and the Constitutional Court can review whether the procedures to pass the amendment were lawful, but cannot examine its contents.

“Instead of defending citizens from the will of the state,” the new articles “defend the will of the government from constitutionality,” said Mate Daniel Szabo, a legal expert with the pro-democracy Eotvos Karoly Policy Institute.

The proposal also bans courts from referring to legal precedents set under the previous constitution.

“This means stepping back to where we were in 1990,” Szabo said. “We’ll be starting everything over, which is very dangerous.”

The new constitution was met with large street protests last year, with some calling Orban a dictator or a “Viktator.”

However, recently most of the domestic complaints about the amendment have come from legal experts, though there have been some signs of public anger.

A few dozen activists staged a sit-down protest at Fidesz headquarters on Thursday last week while about 2,500 people marched on Saturday to the Constitutional Court to protest against the amendment.

For the government, the amendment is just business as usual.

The proposal “is, to a great extent, merely a technical amendment,” Hungarian Justice Minister Tibor Navracsics said.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi added that criticism was being “fueled by misunderstandings and inadequate information.”

A year before the next parliamentary elections, Hungary’s opposition parties are in disarray and a new electoral law makes it even harder to seriously challenge Fidesz, so the effects of Orban’s constitutional amendments could be enduring.

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