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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban triggered alarm bells around Europe in 2011 when he used a two-thirds majority in parliament to push through a series of measures that concentrated political power, weakened checks and balances and restricted the freedom of the media, religious groups and minorities. Under pressure from the European Union, which Hungary joined in 2004, and from the United States, which shepherded Hungary into NATO, Orban backed down a little, modifying measures on the media and courts; at the same time, Hungary’s constitutional court struck down several other laws.
Now Orban, a right-wing populist, has attracted more red flags. He recently appointed a close aide as head of the central bank, one of the few remaining independent institutions, triggering a run on the Hungarian currency. Then on Monday the parliament passed extensive new amendments to the constitution Orban introduced only a year ago, ignoring explicit warnings from E.U. leaders. The State Department said the revisions “could threaten the principles of institutional independence and checks and balances that are the hallmark of democratic governance.” In Europe there have been calls for Hungary to be stripped of its E.U. voting rights or deprived of some of the $600 billion in funding it was awarded in the union’s new seven-year budget.
Orban’s spokesmen insist this is all a misunderstanding. Parliament, they say, merely re-ratified provisions of the new charter that the constitutional court struck down on technical grounds. Changes in a new judicial regime and in a media supervisory organ made to satisfy the European Union remain in place, they say, while the authority of the constitutional court has been slightly broadened — the opposite of the interpretation of domestic and foreign critics.
While there appears to be some merit to the government’s account, many of the new constitutional provisions remain objectionable. Marriage is defined as the “conjugal union of a man and a woman;” churches allowed public funding must “collaborate with the state for the public interest.” Political advertising during election campaigns is restricted to public media, while “free speech cannot be aimed at violating the dignity of the Hungarian nation.”
Students who receive scholarships to state universities are required by the constitution to work for Hungarian firms, and local jurisdictions are given authority to “outlaw the use of certain public space for habitation,” a measure widely seen as aimed at Hungary’s Roma minority. The former Communist Party is constitutionally defined as a criminal organisation, a step that critics say could expose some opposition leaders to prosecution on political grounds.