Despite critics, Orban changes Hungary's constitution

Hungary's parliament approved Monday changes to the constitution that have raised fears in Brussels and Washington of growing authoritarianism under Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the European Union member state.

The changes, which have also sparked protests in Budapest, include a curb on the power of the constitutional court and reintroduce controversial measures rendered void by the court in recent months.

Despite calls from opposition parties, civil groups, and Brussels to postpone the vote, parliament, in which Orban's right-wing Fidesz party has a two-thirds majority, passed the fourth amendment by 265 to 11 with 33 abstentions.

Only hours before the vote, the European Commission warned Hungary to live up to democratic norms and said it would act to ensure EU laws are complied with by member states.

Brussels has clashed with Orban over a whole series of issues, including media freedom, control over the constitutional court and the central bank since he swept to power in 2010.

It is the fourth amendment of Hungary's constitution, called the Fundamental Law, since it came into force on January 1, 2012, replacing the previous one which was deemed a relic of the communist era by Orban's party.

From now on, the constitutional court will no longer be able to void a law endorsed with a two-thirds parliamentary majority and enshrined in the constitution.

It will only be able to review and judge future amendments on procedural grounds, not on their content.

The president will no longer have a veto and will be obliged to sign amendments, except when there is an objection on procedural grounds.

Other changes include allowing party political broadcasts only on state 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.

The amendment also enshrines a definition of the family as "marriage between man and woman", a clause the court previously threw out for being "too narrow" and discriminating against other forms of partnership.

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

The government insists the package of changes -- the so-called "fourth amendment" -- is mostly technical, but opponents claim they accelerate an assault on democratic structures started by the Fidesz-led government in 2010.

Attila Mesterhazy, head of the Socialists, the largest opposition party, said Orban's aim was to "take revenge on the constitutional court, students, opposition parties, and all those who do not do as the government wishes". His party boycotted the vote.

Last week European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso expressed his concerns in a phone call and a letter to Orban, and said the amendments may be in breach of EU law.

The US State Department said the changes "deserve closer scrutiny and more deliberate consideration".

Council of Europe head Thorbjorn Jagland also called on Orban to postpone the vote until the Council's watchdog body the Venice Commission had time to study the legislation.

Several dozen protestors occupied the compound of the Fidesz party headquarters last Thursday to protest the amendments they charge infringe on civil rights, while on Saturday several thousand people staged a protest close to parliament.