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Hungary passes new conservative constitution

Hungarians attend a demonstration against the government's media law and against its new constitution in Budapest, Hungary, Friday, April 15, 2011. International and local journalist organizations have already expressed concern at the new, disputed media law, while Hungarian opposition is against the government's new constitution and its Parliamentary vote on Monday. Banners read in Hungarian: 'Don't watch the TV!' and 'Control yourself!' Hungarians attend a demonstration against the government's media law and against its new constitution in Budapest, Hungary, Friday, April 15, 2011. International and local journalist organizations have already expressed concern at the new, disputed media law, while Hungarian opposition is against the government's new constitution and its Parliamentary vote on Monday. Banners read in Hungarian: "Don't watch the TV!" and "Control yourself!" (AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky)
By Pablo Gorondi
Associated Press / April 18, 2011

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BUDAPEST, Hungary—Hungarian lawmakers approved a socially and fiscally conservative new constitution Monday that was blasted by rights groups and the political opposition for measures including a ban on gay marriage and protection of the life of a fetus from conception.

Conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban says the constitution will allow the former communist country to complete a transition to democracy and move to an era of sound finances and clean government after years of mismanagement and scandals.

Financial analysts have praised provisions meant to push the state deficit below 50 percent of GDP -- from above 80 percent now. The constitution also allows only companies with transparent activities and ownership structures to bid for government contracts.

Hungary's political opposition and human rights groups including Amnesty International say other measures are attempts to limit freedoms.

The constitution protects the life of a fetus from the moment of conception, a move seen as opening the possibility for a future ban or restrictions on abortion.

Same-sex couples may legally register their partnerships but marriage is restricted to heterosexual relationships.

A ban on discrimination does not mention age or sexual orientation, and the constitution allows lifetime prison sentences for violent crimes without the possibility of parole.

Other sections limit the powers of the Constitutional Court and the head of the National Bank of Hungary and tie the modification of tax and pension laws to a two-thirds majority.

"We've just participated in a historical moment," parliamentary speaker Laszlo Kover said moments after the bill was approved 262-44. "The new constitution is built upon our past and traditions, but seeks and contains answers to current problems while keeping an eye on the future."

Hungary's current constitution dates from 1949, near the start of the communist regime but it was almost fully rewritten during the 1989 transition to democracy.

Orban's Fidesz party and its much smaller ally, the Christian Democrats, won a two-thirds parliamentary majority in April 2010, an unassailable majority has allowed the government to push through legislation practically at will and to appoint supporters to key positions for extraordinarily long terms.

Legal experts say Hungary's top courts will lose many of their most experienced members because the constitution lowers the retirement age for judges from 70 to 62 starting next year, while some historians say its preamble includes an attempt to whitewash Hungary's role in the Holocaust.

"The constitution under preparation is not ours," said Attila Nemeth, a gay rights activist speaking Friday at a rally against the new law attended by around 3,000 people. "Nobody's constitution can limit our human rights and freedoms."

Two of Hungary's three opposition parties -- the Socialists and the green Politics Can Be Different -- refused to participate even in the drafting of the new constitution, while the third, the far-right Jobbik, voted against it after Fidesz rejected its proposals.

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