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US ambassador concerned about Hungarian democracy

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — The U.S. ambassador to Hungary says the country's government should review its plans for sweeping reforms affecting democratic institutions, including parliament, the judiciary and the media, according to an article to be published Thursday in a weekly magazine.

Washington remained "concerned" about how a series of new laws and the new Constitution taking effect Jan. 1 could affect the independence of democratic institutions and democracy's checks and balances, U.S. Ambassador Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis said in the article to be published in Heti Valasz.

"No one can deny that reform is needed," Kounalakis was quoted as saying in the article obtained by The Associated Press before publication. "But with today's reforms, the government is focusing on greater efficiency."

Lawmakers are in the midst of voting on a series of cardinal laws — regulating a wide range of subjects from the National Bank of Hungary to the electoral process and the economy — which require a two-thirds majority for approval.

"Over the next few weeks, the cardinal laws will be completed and the new Hungarian Constitution will come into effect," Kounalakis said. "But before it does, I urge the government to look again. A number of credible voices are raising questions."

Some of the concerns about the government plans have focused on the extraordinarily long mandates — ranging between nine and 12 years — given to appointees heading the media council, the state audit office and the chief prosecutor's office.

Next week, parliament will fill two key judicial posts — the head of the Kuria, the new name for the Supreme Court, and a new judicial chief, who will oversee not only the nomination of judges, but also control their selection to preside over specific cases before the courts. Both appointments will be for nine years.

Critics fear Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party will choose people closely linked to the government, casting doubts over their impartiality and independence.

Orban has also vowed to halve the number of lawmakers, from 386 now to 199 from 2014 — a promise made but never kept by other politicians over the past decade.

There are concerns, however, that the new electoral law will make it more difficult for smaller parties to gain parliamentary representation, that the radical redesign of electoral districts — gerrymandering — will tilt the map overwhelmingly in favor of Fidesz and that the winning party will gain a disproportionately large number of seats.

Also, by tying the approval and future modification of some of the new laws to a two-thirds majority, it could severely limit the policy options of future governments in such basic areas as taxation and budget issues, where changes are frequently needed.

In June, during a visit to Budapest, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed similar worries about some of the steps taken by Orban's government, which has a two-thirds majority in parliament.

In her article, Kounalakis recognized that Orban's landslide victory in 2010 came in free elections and that Hungarians have the right to decide their country's direction.

"When the United States expresses concerns about the direction of Hungarian democracy, it comes from us as a friend," Kounalakis wrote.

"We want Hungary to succeed."