Tens of thousands of Hungarians gathered Monday to protest the country's new constitution, which oppositionists and Western powers say undermines democratic checks and balances while cementing the ruling party's power.
Some 30,000 Hungarians rallied Monday to decry the "Orban dictatorship" outside the Budapest Opera House, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his allies were attending a gala to celebrate the new Basic Law. The replacement to Hungary's 1989 post-communist constitution came into effect on January 1.
The title of the protest, "There will be a Republic again," referred to the country's name change under the new Basic Law, which shortens it from "Republic of Hungary" to just "Hungary."
Orban's center-right Fidesz party, which can pass legislation at will since gaining a two-thirds majority in parliament in 2010, has come under fire from the European Union, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Amnesty International for the Basic Law. Critics say it undermines the independence of the judiciary, threatens the diversity of the media and promises to ensconce Fidesz appointees in key public institutions for long after Orban's tenure.
"Viktor Orban and his servants turned Hungary from a promising place to the darkest spot in Europe," Socialist parliamentarian Tibor Szanyi said. He called on the crowd to "sweep out the Orban dictatorship."
Meanwhile, President Pal Schmitt defended the Basic Law, saying Hungarians could take pride in it.
"This constitution was born of a wide consultation, building on national and European values," Schmitt said during the celebration.
Fidesz parliamentarian Gergely Gulyas argued it was "an important value that for the first time, a freely elected parliament created the Basic Law."
Meanwhile, scuffles broke out between anti-Orban demonstrators and right-wing extremist counter-protesters, who denounced the opposition as "enemies of Hungary."
Converting the discontent
Sandor Szekely, who co-chairs the Solidarity movement behind the protest, said that Orban's iron grip on the government has soldered together a stronger opposition.
"It looks like a real coalition is in the making," Szekely said. "This Basic Law basically unwinds the checks and balances that we created in 1989. If we manage to replace this government and its system, we will have to revert to 1989 once again."
"If they hadn't ruined the economy along with democratic values, the anger might be less intense, but they systematically ruin everyone, so people are enraged," he added.
Fidesz's public support plummeted to 18 percent last month, but the opposition has so far been unable to capitalize on the discontent, with 54 percent of voters saying they did not support any party.
Growing financial woes
Meanwhile, the poor international reception of the law threatens to inflict further damage to a Hungarian economy already teetering on the brink.
In November, Hungary's forint currency dropped in value as the country faced difficulty borrowing on the bond market. Budapest was forced to request a 15-20 billion euro ($19-26 billion) credit line from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.
However, the IMF and EU halted preliminary talks last month due to a government proposal to limit the central bank's independence, which has since been adopted.
Hungary's total public debt is now at its highest level since 1995, according to data released Monday by the country's central bank. It put Hungary's accumulated public debt at 82.6 percent of gross domestic product.
Analysts said the situation was worsened by the fact that half of the public debt was in foreign currencies. Hungary's forint has sunk by over 20 percent against the euro since October.
Author: David Levitz (AFP, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Nigel Tandy