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Q&A: Hungary's controversial reforms

17 January 12 15:58
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban

A series of laws and a new constitution which came into force on 1 January in Hungary have encountered widespread criticism.

A coalition of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's conservative Fidesz party and the Christian Democratic People's Party together won a two-thirds majority in the April 2010 election and launched the measures that have prompted the European Commission to begin legal proceedings against Budapest.

The Commission has called for changes to the laws and given Hungary one month to respond to its concerns.

What does the Commission object to?

The Commission argues that Hungary has not made changes to its laws to guarantee respect for EU law and focuses on three issues: the independence of Hungary's central bank, the independence of a new data protection authority and the retirement age of judges. It also calls for more details on the independence of Hungary's judiciary.

Who else has voiced criticism?

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern about democratic freedoms during a visit to Budapest in June 2011 and reportedly repeated them in a letter in December.

On 4 January French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said there was a problem in Hungary and that it was up to the European Commission to check whether the rule of law and democratic values were being protected.

The Socialist, Green and Liberal groups in the European Parliament have criticised Hungary's reforms, and some have called for Article 7 of the EU treaty to be applied. This provides for voting rights to be suspended if a state persistently violates the bloc's founding values.

Western European newspapers in the first half of January reported what they saw as "authoritarian" or "autocratic" developments in Hungary, and were joined by some bloggers on EU affairs, for example on the platform. Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders have also criticised the new constitution and the media law passed in December 2010.

What are the main concerns over democracy?

The government has been accused of using its two-thirds majority to pass measures that entrench the governing party's power. Some of the new laws will require a two-thirds majority to amend them, giving future governments limited room for manoeuvre.

A new electoral law adopted on 23 December is said to favour the strongest party. Concerns have also been raised over curbs on the powers of the constitutional court. Changes in the rules governing appointments to the judiciary, the electoral commission, the data protection agency and the central bank have prompted fears over their independence.

Hungary's media law has been criticised for the powers it confers on a government-appointed media council. Some of those powers, including the ability to regulate print and online content, were struck down by the constitutional court on 19 December 2011. But the following day the council allocated the broadcast frequency of the country's only national opposition radio, Klubradio, to another radio station.

What are the main concerns over rights?

Amnesty International has criticised clauses in the new constitution providing for the protection of life from conception, defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, allowing life imprisonment without parole, and excluding sexual orientation as grounds for claiming discrimination.

Many commentators in Western European papers have seen a rise in racism and anti-Semitism. In an article published on 6 January, Germany's Die Welt warns of "a culture of hatred in which 'Jew' is a term of abuse". Writing in the same paper on 10 January, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy said Hungary was a country "which is ever more openly allowing hatred of Sinti, Roma and Jews to be revived".

Has anybody rallied to the government's defence?

Up to a point. On 6 January the European People's Party, of which Fidesz is a member, said that the new constitution incorporated the Charter of Fundamental Rights. It also saw some merit in the new electoral system. The party added, however, that it would back any recommendations the European Commission might make to ensure Hungary's compliance with EU law.

In October 2011 Amnesty International welcomed Hungary's support for recommendations to strengthen hate crime legislation. It also welcomed its commitment to the collection of data to monitor and deal with ethnic discrimination.

What is the government saying?

Responding to the EU's decision to launch legal proceedings, the Hungarian government said it too considered the independence of the judiciary, national bank and data protection authority as "fundamentally important". It said it hoped to find a solution "without continuation of the full legal infringement procedures".

But ministers earlier complained that specific criticisms were being unfairly generalised.

Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi told French newspaper Le Figaro on 6 January that a distinction had to be made between specific criticisms and statements that Hungary is dismantling democracy. He rejected accusations that the media were being muzzled, noting the "virulent criticism" of the government in the left-wing press and the private TV channels that command 90% of the domestic market. Mr Martonyi also said that government appointees were not always going to be loyal, indeed "quite the opposite in this country".

Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics defended the "cardinal laws" that can only be repealed by a two-thirds vote in parliament. In an article on the Hungarian government's website on 10 January he said these laws were "not designed to entrench a particular ideology or political doctrine, but rather to decide matters of enduring public concern, which will be acknowledged to be such by all Hungarians".

BBC Monitoring selects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaux abroad.

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