Hungary set for protests over constitution

Thousands expected to demonstrate in Budapest against government changes amid concerns about loss of liberties

Thousands of people were expected to protest in Budapest on Monday night after the government made sweeping changes to the Hungarian constitution that opposition figures say are an attack on democracy.

The demonstration near the city's opera house comes amid rising anger with the ruling Fidesz party, which critics – including the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton – fear is eroding individual liberties and media freedom while undermining the independence of the judiciary and other state institutions.

Across town, outside the headquarters of the state broadcaster MTV, journalists have been on hunger strike since 9 December, protesting at what they say is gross interference in their work by pro-government editors. They were outraged after a former chief justice was airbrushed out of a state television broadcast, evoking the dark days of media manipulation during the Soviet era.

There were also protests in December when Klubradio, a popular liberal radio station critical of the government, announced it would have to shut down in 2012 after its frequency was given to a new company. The decision was taken by the controversial Media Council, whose members are all nominated by Fidesz.

Last week MPs from the Politics Can Be Different (LMP) party were arrested when they chained themselves to the parliament gate in a protest at the government's unilateral law changes.

With two-thirds of all MPs in the Hungarian parliament, Fidesz is able to pass dramatic legislation unhindered by the opposition. In 18 months in office, the government has passed hundreds of new laws. On Friday, it ignored warnings from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union to approve new central bank regulations which give the government the power to appoint bank deputies.

The IMF and the EU had already broken off talks which had been scheduled to discuss a bailout of Hungary's faltering economy. The country's finances are in such a poor state that just before Christmas the ratings agencies Moody's and S&P downgraded Hungary's debt to junk category. At a government securities auction last week, just 50% of a total offer of €100m were sold at extremely high yields, suggesting that investors had lost faith.

At the beginning of December, the US ambassador to Hungary took the unusual step of writing a carefully worded warning to the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, which was printed in the weekly Heti Válasz newspaper. In the op-ed, Eleni Tsakopoulos said the US was "concerned" with the speed of legislative change in Hungary. Urging the government to "look again" at the new constitution, she said a "number of credible voices" were raising questions about the lack of "checks and balances built in to the new system" and about whether it was sufficient to ensure "that the independence of democratic institutions is maintained for future generations of Hungarians".

On 23 December, Clinton wrote personally to Orbán to raise "significant and well-founded concerns".

Although Fidesz won enough votes in the last elections to command a super-majority, polls suggest its support has plunged over the last year and a half. Peter Kreko, research director at the Budapest-based thinktank, the Political Capital Institute, said: "In May 2010, 45% of voters chose Fidesz. But polls now show just 20% of people still support the party. There is a huge disillusionment with politics in Hungary now."


Helen Pidd in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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