The Associated Press April 18, 2011, 5:24AM ET

Hungary to approve new constitution on Monday

Lawmakers from the governing majority are set to approve Hungary's new constitution on Monday amid a boycott by the opposition, which claims it's an attempt to entrench power for the government while limiting civil liberties.

The government says the constitution will allow Hungary to complete the transition from communism to democracy started over 20 years ago, put the country on a sound economic footing and prevent the kind of political scandals that tainted the previous government.

"On Monday, parliament is preparing to pass a new fundamental law of which every Hungarian can be proud," said Peter Szijjarto, spokesman for Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Orban's Fidesz party and its much smaller ally, the Christian Democrats, won a two-thirds parliamentary majority in April 2010, a victory Orban labeled "a revolution in the voting booth."

During its first year in power, the unassailable majority has allowed Orban's government to push through legislation practically at will and to appoint supporters to key positions for extraordinarily long terms -- a strategy that, critics claim, will allow Fidesz to maintain its influence long after it is out of office.

Fidesz "is leaving nothing to chance," said conservative political essayist Szabolcs Kerek-Barczy, a former Hungarian consul in Los Angeles. "Viktor Orban and his party wrote a constitution for themselves. It has nothing to do with the whole of Hungarian society and it shows no intent of striving for a wide consensus."

Two of Hungary's three opposition parties -- the Socialists and the green Politics Can Be Different -- refused to participate in the drafting of the new constitution, while the third, the far-right Jobbik, said it would not vote for it after Fidesz rejected its proposals.

Some aspects of the law have been praised by the financial markets, especially provisions meant to push the state deficit below 50 percent of GDP -- from above 80 percent now -- and rules allowing only companies with transparent activities and ownership structures to compete in government tenders.

Less well-received have been constitutional plans to weaken the powers of the Constitutonal Court and the head of the National Bank of Hungary and tie the modification of tax and pension laws to a two-thirds majority.

Amnesty International was among several human rights groups that expressed reservations about other points of the draft, calling parts of it "especially disconcerting" -- for example lifetime prison sentences without the possibility for parole for violent crimes and a ban on discrimination does not specifically mention age or sexual orientation.

The law's protection of the life of a fetus from the moment of conception was also seen as opening up the possibility for a future ban or restrictions on abortion.

The new constitution has also been denounced by gay rights activists -- while same-sex couples in Hungary may legally register their partnerships, it limits marriages to those between a man and a woman.

"The constitution under preparation is not ours," said Attila Nemeth, a gay rights activist speaking Friday at a rally against the new law attended by around 3,000 people. "Nobody's constitution can limit our human rights and freedoms."

Many others also find the new law lacking. Legal experts say Hungary's top courts will lose many of their most experienced members because it lowers the retirement age for judges from 70 to 62 starting next year, while some historians say its preamble includes an attempt to whitewash Hungary's role in the Holocaust.

Hungary's current constitution nominally dates from 1949, near the start of the communist regime, but it was almost fully rewritten during the 1989 transition to democracy.


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