By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Budapest
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)– As many as 100,000 Hungarians have protested against a new constitution and related laws which, they say, are used by the government to introduce dictatorship in the largest such demonstration since Prime Minister Viktor Orbán came to power.
Demonstrators gathered near the State Opera building in Budapest where Hungary’s top leaders attended a gala performance celebrating the constitution, which was enforced January 1, despite Western concerns it curbs constitutional court powers, threatens media pluralism and ends judicial independence.
Several other laws increase government influence over previously independent institutions, such as the Central Bank. Additionally, controversial religious legislation limits the churches recognized and supported by the state to just 14, forcing hundreds of faith groups, including evangelical churches, to ask again for recognition, pending parliamentary approval. Critics say the legislation resembles meassures taken by the former Communist regime, when religion was discouraged.
“There is no truth where laws are passed forcefully, without consultations, where people live in fear and where people are not equal,” Methodist pastor Gábor Iványi told the crowd. “Hungary is a part of Europe and wants to stay like that,” added Iványi, who is also president of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship (HEF) of evangelical groups and churches.
The European Union and the United States have expressed “deep concern” about Hungary’s democratic credentials. Additionally, the EU and International Monetary Fund broke off preliminary talks over some 26-billion dollar financial assistance sought by Hungary, the region’s most indebted nation.
At Monday’s massive rally, demonstrators also demanded a “new republic” as since January 1 this nation of 10 million people is no longer mentioned as the “Republic of Hungary”, but just “Hungary”, in the constitution. Border signs were changed, just in time for the New Year.
The constitution was rushed through in April, thanks to a two-third parliamentary majority that enables Orbán’s government to change legislation at will.
Some opponents also criticize the constitution because it enforces a Catholic and conservative worldview on the country. The constitution mentions the country as “Christian”, although only 13 percent of people are regular traditional church goers, while Hungary’s first King Stephen and his crown are both mentioned as “holy”.
Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have expressed concerns about lifetime prison sentences without the possibility for parole for violent crimes and a ban on discrimination does not specifically mention age or sexual orientation.
During Monday’s rally, several demonstrators shouted that Prime Minister Orbán had turned Hungary into “Orbanistan”, in reference to autocratic nations in Central Asia.
There were isolated scuffles with neo-nazi groups and far right activists, some wearing ski masks, who held a separate demonstration in support of the constitution and “against “the deadly enemies of Hungarians.”
The Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik) party, Hungary’s third largest political force in parliament, has been accussed of supporting far right activists and groups.
Hungary’s government has denied wrongdoing, saying the constitution completes the democratic transition following the collapse of Communism in 1989.
However former anti-communist dissidents said ahead of Monday’s rally that Hungary is no longer a constitutional democracy.
“Never since the regime change of 1989, when the communist dictatorship was crushed, has there been such an intense concentration of power in the region as in present-day Hungary,” said a statement signed by, among others, writer György Konrád, former Budapest Mayor Gábor Demszky and Miklós Haraszti, an ex-media freedom representative at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Those concerns were also reflected by protesters, chanting anti-Orbán slogans and “dictatorship” as government officials and President Pal Schmitt arrived to the gala event held in the State Opera.
“Viktor Orbán and his servants turned Hungary from a promising place to the darkest spot in Europe,” Socialist parliamentarian Tibor Szanyi said. He urged demonstrators to help “sweeping out the Orban dictatorship”.
However analysts said that may be difficult. Even without Orbán, the Fidesz party footprint is expected to be seen for decades. Several key laws related to, for instance, elections, the judiciary, media and banks, require a two-third parliamentary majority.
The United States has urged the government to preserve “democratic institutions for future generations”. However Orbán said last week that “nobody in the world” can tell “elected Hungarian legislators what to do.”