BUDAPEST, Hungary — Hungary's prime minister defended his nation's new constitution on Tuesday and questioned the motives of those who are criticizing it.
The critics include the European Commission, which has legally challenged the document and related legislation that took effect Jan. 1, saying they undermine the independence of Hungary's central bank and the judiciary, and do not respect data privacy principles.
Others claim the constitution imposes a conservative ideology on the country and that recent laws on churches and the media limit civic rights.
Last year, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed her concern during a visit to Budapest about threats to the independence of the judiciary, free press and governmental transparency.
In his "state of the nation" speech, however, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the constitution — which was only approved last year by lawmakers from the governing parties and went into effect Jan. 1 — will be defended "by all means" because it offers good solutions to Hungary's problems.
He also claimed that its critics are financially motivated by interests in Hungary's markets and resources, and want to keep the nation indebted and dependent on loans.
"Debt is a good deal, if you are on the right end of the stick," Orban told an elite crowd of government supporters in a large hall at the Millenaris Park in Budapest. "Let's not be naive — in truth, this is their problem with the new constitution."
Orban and other government officials have said changes will be made to the most of the Hungarian laws worrying the European Union, but his message to the domestic audience was defiant.
In 2008, Hungary secured an IMF-led bailout of euro20 billion ($26 billion) to avoid bankruptcy during an earlier, Socialist government. In 2010, Orban decided not to extend the IMF deal to allow the government to set its economic policies without the fund's intervention. But last November, in a shocking U-turn, Hungary said it would in fact seek IMF-EU financial support to strengthen investor confidence.
Last week, Hungary's national carrier, Malev, ceased operations, grounded all its flights and stranded more than 7,000 passengers, blaming what it called an "unsustainable" financial situation.
Orban said Hungary had "run aground" under the Socialists, and he also defended his country's flat income tax which he said would help the middle class. "We are convinced ... that we are worse off than what our work, talents and knowledge qualify us for," he said.
The prime minister said it is time for Hungarians to dismiss Europe's "pigheaded worrying," follow their own convictions and work hard for a successful future.
"As the remarkable Wayne Gretzky advised, 'Skate where the puck is going to be, not where it has been,'" Orban concluded. "Let's go Hungary! Let's go Hungarians!"
As Orban spoke Tuesday, about 40 people marched in freezing weather to Budapest from Borsod County, one of the country's poorest, hoping to bring the plight of their region to the government's attention. The so-called "Work, Bread" march was the idea of Imre Toth, an unemployed, 44-year-old steel worker deeply affected by the death of a friend who recently committed suicide because of his dire economic situation.
"This hunger march signals that we are close to dying of hunger and our livelihood is barely secured," Toth said while pausing for a roadside lunch near the town of Bukkabrany, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) into the journey and 95 miles (150 kilometers) from their destination. "It was the inflexibility and inhumanity of this country's government which moved us to launch our protest."
Several opposition politicians, activists and residents of Borsod County joined Toth's march, which planned to advance around 15 miles (25 kilometers) a day escorted by two police cars and enduring freezing temperatures, snowdrifts and biting wind.