BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungary's Socialist Party leader was chosen Saturday as the opposition alliance candidate in upcoming elections and he accused the government of having "wrecked the rule of law" and of sidelining democratic principles.
Attila Mesterhazy was endorsed by 99.7 percent of party delegates to lead the alliance of five left-wing parties, which also includes two parties formed by former Socialist prime ministers Ferenc Gyurcsany and Gordon Bajnai.
Mesterhazy, who turns 40 on Thursday, has led the Socialist Party since July 2010 and will be Prime Minister Viktor Orban's first challenger who is younger than him. Orban, 50, is hoping to win a third four-year term in the April 6 elections.
Fidesz has "wrecked the rule of law ... and reversed the system of checks and balances," Mesterhazy said. "In a normal democracy, checks and balances defend the people from the excesses of power. In Hungary, Orban's new system defends those in power from the people."
Among the Orban policies criticized by Mesterhazy were a new deal with Russia to build new reactors at Hungary's only nuclear power plant, state contracts which have favored many of the prime minister's friends and the political control of state media.
Elections will include only one round of voting instead of two, will cut the number of legislators nearly in half — from 386 to 199 — and significantly restrict campaign ads.
A poll taken in early January by the Ipsos Institute found support among all voters at 28 percent for Fidesz and 22 percent for the parties in the left-wing alliance. The far-right Jobbik was at 6 percent.
A government decree signed last week by Orban set unprecedented limits on where political billboards and posters can be placed, a move rights advocates said aggravated already worrisome restrictions on the campaigns.
"Democracy is seriously damaged if parliamentary elections are held on the basis of rules which unconstitutionally silence campaigns and create conditions which are evidently advantageous for the government parties," said a joint statement from the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Karoly Eotvos Institute and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union.
Government propaganda, which has been flooding citizens' mailboxes and the media, won't be constrained by the new rules, the three institutions said.
Fidesz won a two-thirds majority in 2010 with 52.7 percent of the votes for party lists. In the new electoral system, such dominance could be achieved with as little as 40 percent of the votes.
Its supermajority in the legislature has allowed Fidesz to adopt a new constitution, increase executive power, override numerous rulings of the Constitutional Court, nationalize the assets of the private pension funds. and centralize the education system and public media.
Orban says the drastic changes were needed to wipe away the remnants of the communist system, which ended in 1990, and to rescue Hungary from the brink of economic disaster after the 2002-2010 mismanagement by the Socialist Party governments.
Last year, the government modified the new constitution for the fifth time, in part to allay criticism from the European Union. However, the essence of many of the disputed policies, including a ban on paid political campaign advertisements on commercial TV and radio and a church law that limits the rights of many religious groups, remained unchanged.
The left-wing alliance expanded 10 days ago after Mesterhazy and Bajnai agreed to add Gyurcsany and his Democratic Coalition, as well as a smaller liberal party, to their electoral coalition.
Gyurcsany resigned as prime minister in 2009 and was replaced by Bajnai a few months after Hungary became the first country in the European Union to get an international bailout when it was pushed to the edge of insolvency. He is also blamed for police brutality against both violent protesters and a separate, peaceful rally by Fidesz supporters on the 50th anniversary of the 1956 anti-Soviet revolution.
Gyurcsany remains a polarizing figure and it was only after months of haggling and political maneuvering that he was able to join the alliance. Without a runoff vote, the parties have to form coalitions ahead of the elections.