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Hungary’s hard-won democracy under threat?

Warn of a move to one-party rule

BUDAPEST - He paid youths to attend his speech and clap. He championed laws to silence critical journalists. He rammed through a constitution aimed at remaking Hungary on conservative Christian values.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who made his name protesting Hungary’s communist dictatorship, is now confronting protesters chanting “Viktator!’’

As a student radical, Orban wrote a stinging analysis of the dirty tricks communists used to cling to power. He now faces accusations of playing by a similar handbook as he consolidates power for his right-wing party and erodes the democracy he once fought for with zeal.

Hungarian critics are alarmed by a creeping move in the EU nation toward centralized one-party rule under his Fidesz party.


“Orban is a big threat to Hungarian democracy,’’ said Jozsef Debreczeni, author of two Orban biographies and a former adviser who broke with him in the 1990s because he believed that Orban was beginning to abandon his liberal principles. “I am convinced he is ruining the country.’’

Since Orban’s party swept to power in 2010, it has used a two-thirds majority in Parliament to reshape laws in a way that has startled political opponents, the EU, and the United States.

The overwhelming victory was the result of deep disillusionment with the former Socialist government, which mismanaged the economy so badly that Hungary became the first European country to need a bailout when the global financial crisis took hold in 2008. But Orban declared his victory a “revolution in the voting booth,’’ and took it as license to push through a new constitution and hundreds of new laws that fit his vision of a conservative Christian state.

The constitution recognizes “the role that Christianity played in preserving the nation’’ and vows to protect the life of human fetuses from the moment of conception, while defining marriage as a union between a man and woman. Some liberal Hungarians fear that enshrining those beliefs into the constitution could pave the way for restrictions on abortion and same-sex legal partnerships, both of which are now permitted in Hungary.


Orban contends that a sweeping overhaul of the country’s institutions was needed to free the country of all influences of former communists, many of whom continued to hold sway in Hungary in the 22 years since communism’s collapse.

Last year, young people were paid around $8 each to attend and applaud a speech, according to reports in independent media.

In a meeting with foreign correspondents recently, Orban said he long shared the frustration of millions of Hungarians and their longing to “finally complete the change of regime.’’

“What we wanted to do in 1989, we were never able to,’’ Orban said.

Last June, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed her concerns during a visit to Budapest about the perceived threats to the independence of the judiciary, free press, and governmental transparency.

But these days, foreign leaders rarely visit Hungary. And the EU said last week that it might take legal action against Hungary over the disputed constitution.