- - Tuesday, January 17, 2012

BUDAPEST — Karoly Meszaros is a Budapest taxi driver who always voted socialist until he heard some leftist lawmakers talking about stealing money from the public, as he drove them to parliament one day.

“They talked about money in such a stomach-churning way that I stopped voting for them,” he said.

Like the majority of Hungarians, Mr. Meszaros voted for the conservative nationalists two years ago and helped Viktor Orban’s Fidesz Party gain power with a massive two-thirds majority in parliament. Now, like a growing number of Hungarians, he regrets his vote.

“These new guys in power are no better,” he said.

Hungary, once seen as the Iron Curtain country with the greatest promise of adopting a Western-style democracy, is now in political turmoil.

Thousands are marching in the streets and accusing the government of violating their rights. Western allies, including the United States, are complaining about a constitution that critics say undercuts fundamental democratic principles, and the European Union is upset with the government’s taxes on eurozone banks. The constitution took effect Jan. 1.

On Tuesday, the European Commission launched legal challenges against the constitution amid concerns that the former Soviet-bloc country is slipping back into authoritarianism.

“Hungary is a key member of the European family, and we do not want a shadow of a doubt on the respect for democratic principles and values,” commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told reporters in Strasbourg. “The quicker that this is resolved, the better.”

Despite the political upheaval, Fidesz - a Hungarian acronym for the Alliance of Young Democrats - remains the most popular political party, according to opinion polls.

“Orban, in my view, is one of the most experienced politicians around, with a more than 20-year background in politics,” said accountant Ferenc Kiss.

“Hungarians complain a lot instead of looking around and observing that there are countries much worse off than us,” he added.

Fidesz leaders say the 2010 election gave the party a mandate to draw up a new constitution.

“If you read the constitution, you will find that it is has all the checks and balances,” said Jozsef Szajer, a senior Fidesz member of parliament and one of the authors of the national charter.

“If you say that Hungary is going to a dictatorship, you have to prove it. People who have never read the constitution are labeling Viktor Orban the Putin of the Puszta,” he said, referring to a nickname for the premier common in the German media.

Mr. Orban, at age 26, was one of the heroes of the 1989 revolution, when Hungarians threw off Soviet domination. A fiery speech by the young lawyer helped bring down communism, and Hungary became the second East European country, after Poland, to elect a democratic government.

“We are the children of freedom,” Mr. Szajer said.

However, an increasing number of protests have erupted in the Hungarian capital in recent weeks.

Just before Christmas, several thousand people gathered to protest a communication regulator’s decision to strip the anti-government Klub Radio of its broadcast frequency, effectively shutting it down.

Tens of thousands gathered Jan. 2, as Mr. Orban’s government celebrated the promulgation of Hungary’s new constitution.

Some protest organizers say a “Hungarian Spring” is stirring.

“We have never felt that we needed real democracy so much [as now],” said Attila Steve Kopias, who helped organize the latest demonstration.

Mr. Kopias is proud that civic movements are fighting Mr. Orban’s changes on a range of issues including a new judicial law that restricts the high court’s authority over constitutional issues and a media law that can impose high fines on journalists.

“We’re finally realizing that no area of our personal life is left untouched by the current government,” said Mr. Kopias. “We’re starting to wake up.”

Mr. Orban’s opponents have taken to calling him the “Viktator.” They say Hungary is no longer a democracy.

Constitutional analyst Andras L. Pap, a senior research fellow at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ legal section, said those claims are exaggerated. However, he said he is concerned about the way Fidesz has been steering its legislation through parliament.

“Individual members of parliament propose a bill, and it would go through in three days,” Mr. Pap said, adding that it allowed too little time for the public, media and civic groups to debate a proposed law.

Mr. Pap said the governmental bodies overseeing many spheres of Hungarian public life, headed by pro-government figures, are “chilling free speech” in the central European country.

Despite all the protests and criticism, opinion polls show Mr. Orban’s Fidesz well ahead of the second highest polling party, Jobbik, which is to the right of the government on many social and civic issues.

Fidesz retains the support of 47 percent of voters, while Jobbik won 20 percent in an October poll. Support for the opposition Socialists rose to 17 percent from 12 percent. However, in a bad omen for the government, 69 percent of voters said the country is heading in the wrong direction.

Mr. Pap said most of those who have turned away from Fidesz have dropped out of politics. The October poll showed that 55 percent of Hungarians describe themselves as “passive” or “undecided.”

Protest organizers say that group of apathetic citizens will need to be mobilized if the demonstrations are to grow large enough to reverse Fidesz’s agenda.

“It’s not just the government, it’s everything. I have the feeling that Hungary is like the Titanic,” said one protester, who declined to be identified.

The protester said he joined the Jan. 2 demonstration because of the constitution’s failure to extend comprehensive legal protections to the country’s minorities, such as the Slovaks and Roma, sometimes called Gypsies.

Many in Budapest want the opposition to advance more concrete goals before they join.

“Protests should be for something, but nothing constructive is being offered,” said Anna Karsai, an unemployed illustrator. “Protesting against something is fundamentally destructive.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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