BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Tens of thousands of protesters on Monday jeered Hungarian leaders outside a glitzy gala to mark the country's brand new constitution, accusing the government of exerting control over everything from the media, to the economy and religion.
A diverse crowd chanted, whistled and hoisted placards outside the State Opera as Prime Minister Viktor Orban and guests celebrated inside. Many protesters called the premier the "Viktator."
"The prime minister took an oath to defend the constitution, but instead he overthrew it," Laszlo Majtenyi, a former head of the media authority, told the crowd on Andrassy Avenue. "Tonight the Opera is the home of hypocrisy and the street the home of constitutional virtues."
Opposition activists and civil rights groups say Orban and his center-right Fidesz party, which has a two-thirds parliamentary majority, have passed laws eroding the democratic system of checks and balances by increasing political control over the judiciary, the central bank, religious groups and the media.
President Pal Schmitt insisted Hungarians could be proud of their new constitution, which he said was long overdue and should have been adopted after the fall of communism.
"This constitution was born of a wide consultation, building on national and European values," Schmitt said during the celebration. "Our Basic Law defines the family, order, the home, work and health as the most important, shared scale of values."
The European Union, the United States and international watchdogs have criticized many of the government's recent moves.
Protesters repeatedly shouted "bovli" — "junk" in Hungarian — mocking Hungary's recent credit rating downgrades.
Hungary is facing a possible recession in 2012 and has turned to the International Monetary Fund and the European Union for financial aid. But preliminary talks ended prematurely in December after the government went ahead with a new central bank law, despite criticism from the EU that it will diminish the independence of the National Bank of Hungary.
Hungary's constitution was approved in April by Fidesz during an opposition boycott, and went into effect on New Year's Day. While the government said the new basic law completes the transition from communism to democracy that began in 1989, opponents say it entrenches the current government's power and forces a conservative view on the whole country.
Human rights groups have expressed concerns about lifetime prison sentences without the possibility for parole for violent crimes and a ban on discrimination that does not specifically mention age or sexual orientation.
The law's protection of the life of a fetus from the moment of conception was also seen as clearing the way for a possible future ban or restrictions on abortions.
A group of former anti-communist dissidents said the country's constitutional system is in a "critical situation."
"Never since the regime change of 1989, when the communist dictatorship was crushed, has there been such an intense concentration of power in the region as in present-day Hungary," said a statement signed by, among others, writer Gyorgy Konrad, former Budapest Mayor Gabor Demszky and Miklos Haraszti, a former media freedom representative at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The protest was peaceful except for a brief scuffle between a few dozen right-wing extremists holding a counter-protest and a group of Socialist Party politicians attending the street rally.