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Hungary to insert rejected laws into constitution

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PABLO GORONDI | March 10, 2013 03:21 PM EST | AP


BUDAPEST, Hungary — Hungary's prime minister can't take "no" for an answer, even when he is being instructed by the country's highest court.

Over the past 18 months, the Constitutional Court has struck down several of the government's policies, including fining or jailing the homeless for living in public spaces, banning political campaign ads on commercial radio and TV stations and forcing university students who accepted state scholarships to work in Hungary for years after they graduate.

On Monday, however, lawmakers from Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party are preparing to pass a lengthy amendment to the constitution that will entrench all those discredited policies and many others, ensuring that the government gets its way no matter what anyone says.

The amendment has alarmed the European Union, which over the past several months has forced Orban to dilute some of the laws meant to expand his control over everything from the central bank and the economy to the arts and the media.

The current argument is only the latest example of international criticism over government policies seen to be concentrating power in Orban's hands, paying lip service to democratic principles and expanding the state's role to the detriment of private enterprise.

On Friday, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso spoke by telephone with Orban and sent him a letter expressing his concerns about possible conflicts between the planned amendment and EU laws.

"We trust that these contacts will ensure that our concerns are taken into account," commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen told The Associated Press, adding that the intention was to avoid facing "any vote that would result in incompatibility with EU law ... and would make the time ahead more difficult."

In a written response to Barroso after their call, Orban confirmed "the full commitment" of Hungary's government and parliament to European norms, but gave no direct indication that Monday's vote on the amendment, which has more than 20 articles, would be delayed.

With most domestic challengers neutralized – Orban allies run the media council, the state audit office, the central bank and other key institutions – the prime minister has taken to lashing out at EU bureaucrats in Brussels.

Although 97 percent of Hungary's development funds over the past years have been provided by the EU, Orban has said Hungary won't allow itself "to be dictated to by anyone from Brussels or anywhere else" and that Hungary does not need "unsolicited comradely assistance" from people in "finely-tailored suits" to write its constitution.

The U.S. has also voiced concerns about the amendment. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said it "could threaten the principles of institutional independence and checks and balances that are the hallmark of democratic governance."

The 49-year-old Orban's repeated attempts to concentrate power and carry out his "revolution in a voting booth," as he dubbed his party's landslide win in 2010, seem at odds with his past. Once a determined anti-communist dissident, he entered the political stage in 1989 by publicly calling for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary and the end of the communist dictatorship.

To rebuild an economy deeply damaged by eight years of Socialist Party rule, Orban and his "right hand," Gyorgy Matolcsy, until last week economy minister but now president of the National Bank of Hungary, have applied unorthodox policies.

Since 2010, the government, for example, has nationalized about $14 billion in assets earlier administered by private pension funds, introduced the EU's highest bank tax and value added tax rates as well as levies on financial transactions and phone 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 which 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 2012 – 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 can't 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," said Szabo. "We'll be starting everything over, which is very dangerous."

The new constitution was met with large street protests in 2012, with some calling Orban a dictator or a "Viktator." Recently, however, most of the domestic complaints about the amendment have come from legal scholars, though there have been some signs of public anger.

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

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

Justice Minister Tibor Navracsics said the proposal "is, to a great extent, merely a technical amendment," while Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi said 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.