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Politics

Hungarian parliament passes controversial constitutional changes

Hungary’s ruling conservative party has pushed through controversial changes to the constitution, despite warnings from the EU. Opponents say the changes will greatly limit the powers of the constitutional court.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban's ruling right-wing Fidesz party, which has a two-thirds majority in parliament, approved a controversial amendment Monday afternoon.

Critics say the vote, known as the "fourth amendment," will limit the power of the constitutional court and increase government controls over the judiciary and higher education.

Shortly after the vote, the European Commission and the Council of Europe said the amendments "raise concerns with respect to the principle of the rule of law, EU law and Council of Europe standards."

Controversial changes

The changes passed by parliament mean that the constitutional court will no longer be able to void a constitutional law endorsed with a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

The top court will now only be able to review and judge future amendments on procedural grounds, not on their content.

Other changes include allowing party political broadcasts only on state-run media, committing students who receive state aid to remain in Hungary after graduation for a certain period, and a ban on sleeping on the streets.

It also allows parliament to decide on the legal status of religious communities.

Warnings and reassurance

Hungary changes its constitution

Hungary's main opposition Socialist Party boycotted the vote, a move which was seen as largely symbolic given that Orban's party holds majority in parliament.

Ahead of the vote, Socialist Party President Attila Mesterhazy said Orban's wanted to "take revenge on the constitutional court, students, opposition parties, and all those who do not do as the government wishes."

European Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen said Monday that Barroso had spoken with Orban on Friday, who reassured her that Budapest remained committed to EU rules.

Orban's comments were "very positive," she said, "but our job is to make sure that [the] EU laws that member states have signed up to, are complied with."

Since taking power in 2010, Orban has pushed through changes that the EU says risk undermining media freedom, control over the constitutional court and the central bank.

International pressure

Before the vote, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle expressed concern.

"The German government has never left any doubt that Europe is a community of values and that we expect that these values be respected," Westerwelle told reporters in Brussels on Monday.

"It is not only about constitutions and rights put on paper, but about living them," he added.

The United States has also criticized the move saying the constitutional changes "deserve closer scrutiny and more deliberate consideration."

Former Hungarian president Laszlo Solyom, who served from 2005-2010, argued the amendment would dissolve the state's separation of powers.

Over the weekend, several thousand Hungarians staged protests against the vote.

hc/kms (Reuters, AFP, dpa)

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