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story.lead_photo.caption Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers a speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, on Tuesday.

BRUSSELS -- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban suffered a rare political setback Wednesday as European Union lawmakers voted to pursue unprecedented action against his government over accusations that it undermined the bloc's democratic values and rule of law. Hungary called the action fraudulent and vowed to challenge it.

Despite the official rebuke, Orban is showing no signs of compromise.

While he seeks to keep his ruling Fidesz party within the conservative European People's Party, the largest and most powerful group in the European assembly, its possible ouster may push him closer to other far-right groups in Europe, like the nationalist Alternative for Germany or France's National Rally led by Marine le Pen.

The lawmakers voted 448-197 in favor of a report recommending a so-called Article 7 procedure, which could lead to the suspension of Hungary's EU voting rights. Needing a two-thirds majority to pass, it was approved by 69.4 percent of the lawmakers.

For years, Orban had been able to deflect much of the international condemnation aimed at him. Critics say Hungary's electoral system favors the governing parties; media freedoms and judicial independence are dwindling; corruption and the enrichment of Orban allies with EU and state funds are on the rise; asylum seekers and refugees are mistreated; and there are efforts to limit the activities of nongovernmental organizations.

While Orban occasionally made minor amendments to disputed laws and policies to appease the EU, the essence of his efforts to centralize power within his own ever-expanding office has not really changed since he returned to government in 2010 with a two-thirds majority. Hungary quickly adopted a new constitution after eight years of Socialist Party governments that led the country to the brink of bankruptcy.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, echoing Orban's longtime position that allowed him to win a third-consecutive term in April, called the vote "petty revenge" against Hungary for its tough anti-migrant policies.

"This decision condemning Hungary and the Hungarian people was made because we Hungarians have demonstrated that migration is not a necessary process and that migration can be stopped," Szijjarto said in Budapest.

On Orban's orders, fences were built in 2015 on Hungary's southern borders with Serbia and Croatia to divert the flow of migrants, and the country has adopted increasingly restrictive asylum rules.

Orban has framed the migration issue, which he predicts will be the main theme of European elections next year, as one that goes beyond party lines.

Hungary claimed its defeat in the European Parliament involved "massive fraud" since 48 abstentions weren't counted in the final tally, which made it easier to reach the needed majority. Szijjarto said Hungary was considering legal options to appeal the result.

However, according to Article 354 of the Lisbon Treaty, changes adopted in 2007 after the EU expanded from 15 to 27 members, "for the purposes of Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, the European Parliament shall act by a two-thirds majority of the votes cast." This would seemingly exclude abstentions from the tally.

Orban's critics and opponents were elated by the outcome. Judith Sargentini, who presented the report prepared by the European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, called it "a historic result for Hungarian and for European citizens."

A Section on 09/13/2018

Print Headline: Hungary rebuked by EU lawmakers

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