Thousands of Hungarians protested in central Budapest on Saturday (9 March) against imminent changes to the country's constitution which they fear would curb democratic rights, echoing worries this week from the European Union and the United States.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s ruling center-right Fidesz party has used its unprecedented two-thirds parliamentary majority to make laws that critics say limit citizens' freedoms.
Parliament is scheduled to hold a final vote on the constitutional changes today (11 March).
Decisions of the country's top Constitutional Court made before the new constitution entered into force in 2012 will no longer be valid, discarding an important body of law often used as reference before. Restrictive new regulation may now appear in higher education, homelessness, electoral law and family law.
"We really have had enough of this," said 17-year-old student Luca Cseh, adding the changes limited her prospects of going to university as state subsidies would only be available to students who pledge to work in Hungary after graduation.
"They oppress students, but also the homeless or homosexuals," she said.
In a phone call on Friday, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso told Prime Minister Viktor Orbán that his government and the parliament should address concerns "in accordance with EU democratic principles".
The move came after the foreign ministers of Germany, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands asked Barroso in a letter dated 6 March that the Union would impose funding cuts on member states that violate the 27-nation bloc’s democratic values.
“At this critical stage in European history, it is crucially important that the fundamental values enshrined in the European treaties be vigorously protected,” they said.
Orbán sent a letter to Barroso after the phone call in which he pledged Hungary would conform to the norms and rules of the European Union, without offering specifics.
According to a statement by Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs János Martonyi, Orbán confirmed the full commitment of the Hungarian Government to European norms and rules and assured Barroso that “this commitment has been and is going to be reflected throughout the process of adopting the modifications to the Fundamental Law”.
The Hungarian Permanent Representation to the EU made available the letter by Martonyi to the foreign affairs ministers of the EU member states, in which he assures them of Hungary’s commitment to EU norms and values, and invites experts for providing them with more information on any possible concern.
Earlier this week the European institution responsible for defending human rights, the Council of Europe, urged Budapest to postpone the vote, fearing for Hungary's democratic checks and balances.
The government rejected that request, and Justice Minister Tibor Navracsics sent a detailed explanation of the laws to the Council defending the changes and offering further discussions.
The U.S. State Department and human rights organizations also expressed concern.
However, the leader of the Fidesz party's parliament group, Antal Rogán, told a news conference on Saturday that external pressure on Hungary was unacceptable.
Speakers at the protest said they would no longer tolerate being told what to do by the government.
Philosopher and opposition activist Miklós Tamás Gáspár told the crowd: "When they lay down in the constitution how those who have nowhere to go may or may not sleep on the street, how a student with no job prospects may or may not go abroad for work, then we need to ask whether it's us protesters that have gone crazy or those who write the constitution."
Hungarian Socialists launch election drive
About 12,000 Socialist supporters gathered in Budapest's biggest sport arena on Saturday to hear Chairman Attila Mesterházy say the party had been rejuvenated and a comprehensive programme had been drafted to take on Orbán.
Mesterházy also said the Socialists would work with grassroots groups and unions to rehabilitate the rule of law starting with the constitution which Fidesz overhauled.
He said a Socialist government would be cooperative not confrontational in foreign relations, repairing damaged ties with the European Union and other international partners.
"We must not wage a freedom fight against Europe, rather cooperate in an alliance so that we can represent our national interests better," Mesterházy said.
Speaking in Budapest, Sergei Stanishev, the European Socialist Party (PES) President, stated that “Orbán does not understand democracy”. He condemned the so called constitutional ‘mega-ammendment’ that Orbán is attempting to pass, which he called an “assault on democracy”.
Fidesz upset many Hungarians by nationalising pension fund assets, introducing new taxes on financial transactions and telecommunications and increasing influence over education, cultural institutions, the media and the judiciary.
But since Fidesz's landslide election victory in 2010, the left-wing opposition has been fragmented and unable to capitalise on Orbán's loss of about a million supporters and the undecided view of almost half the eight million electorate.