msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 4/18/2011 7:52:54 AM ET 2011-04-18T11:52:54

Hungary's new government is considering giving mothers with young children additional votes in elections, The Guardian newspaper reported.

The Fidesz party, which was voted into power on a populist rightwing platform, has proposed a number of controversial policies such as cracking down on the media, but this latest one has divided the Hungarian public, the newspaper reported.

Lawmakers from the governing majority are set to approve Hungary's new constitution on Monday amid a boycott by the opposition, which claims it's an attempt to entrench power for the government while limiting civil liberties.

Polling on the idea to give mothers extra votes has revealed concerns that Roma families would gain too many votes, so the Fidesz party has "permitted the passage of a law giving mothers the vote on behalf of a maximum of one child," Jozsef Szajer, a senior Fidesz official and Member of Parliament, told the Guardian.

"Some 20 percent of society are children," the Guardian quoted Szajer as saying. "This is quite a considerable group that is left out of representation. The interests of these future generations are not represented in decision-making."

"We know at first it seems an unusual idea, but in the 50s it was unusual to give votes to black people; 100 years ago, it was unusual to give votes to women."

Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party and its much smaller ally, the Christian Democrats, won a two-thirds parliamentary majority in April 2010, a victory Orban labeled "a revolution in the voting booth."

During its first year in power, the unassailable majority has allowed Orban's government to push through legislation practically at will and to appoint supporters to key positions for extraordinarily long terms — a strategy that, critics claim, will allow Fidesz to maintain its influence long after it is out of office.

The government says the new constitution will allow Hungary to complete the transition from communism to democracy started over 20 years ago, put the country on a sound economic footing and prevent the kind of political scandals that tainted the previous government.

'Unprecedented' in a democracy
The controversial voting idea was conceived by Paul Demeny, an American demographer who in 1986 came up with the idea of giving each parent a half-vote for each child, Szajer told the Guardian. According to Demeny, political disagreements between parents could be solved by splitting the vote of one child, Szajer said.

Japan and Germany flirted with the idea in the 2000s amidst concerns that aging voters would skew policy reforms, the Guardian reported.

But the concept was actually in practice long before universal suffrage, said University of Chicago law professor Tom Ginsburg. The philosophy then was that some people deserved to be given more political weight because they had a higher stake in society — people such as white men, landowners and church leaders, according to the Guardian.

"This is unprecedented in a democratic constitution," Ginsburg told the Guardian. "Overweighting votes for those with families undermines the political rights of those who choose not to have families."

Meanwhile, some aspects of Hungary's constitution have been praised by the financial markets, especially provisions meant to push the state deficit below 50 percent of GDP — from above 80 percent now — and rules allowing only companies with transparent activities and ownership structures to compete in government tenders.

Less well-received have been constitutional plans to weaken the powers of the Constitutonal Court and the head of the National Bank of Hungary and tie the modification of tax and pension laws to a two-thirds majority.

Amnesty International was among several human rights groups that expressed reservations about other points of the draft, calling parts of it "especially disconcerting" — for example lifetime prison sentences without the possibility for parole for violent crimes and a ban on discrimination 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 opening up the possibility for a future ban or restrictions on abortion.

The new constitution has also been denounced by gay rights activists — while same-sex couples in Hungary may legally register their partnerships, it limits marriages to those between a man and a woman.

"The constitution under preparation is not ours," said Attila Nemeth, a gay rights activist speaking Friday at a rally against the new law attended by around 3,000 people. "Nobody's constitution can limit our human rights and freedoms."

Many others also find the new law lacking. Legal experts say Hungary's top courts will lose many of their most experienced members because it lowers the retirement age for judges from 70 to 62 starting next year, while some historians say its preamble includes an attempt to whitewash Hungary's role in the Holocaust.

Hungary's current constitution nominally dates from 1949, near the start of the communist regime, but it was almost fully rewritten during the 1989 transition to democracy.

Msnbc.com staff and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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