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Orban proposes change to Hungary's election law, opposition cries foul

* Govt forces opposition parties to fully unite in elections

* Opposition attacks changes as anti-democratic

* Public funds redefined, could be harder to trace spending

BUDAPEST, Nov 11 (Reuters) - Hungary’s government submitted draft bills late on Tuesday which could force opposition parties to link up to fight an election and reduces transparency over public money, prompting a withering rebuke from the opposition.

Nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, often criticised by Western allies for eroding democratic standards, earlier on Tuesday received a special mandate from parliament to rule by decree for 90 days to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Although the new bills will have to be voted on by parliament, opposition parties said introducing the changes with little fanfare while the public was focused on the pandemic was wrong.

Under proposed new election rules, opposition parties will either have to unify completely, highlighting their divisions, or compete against one another, limiting their chances of defeating Orban.

“Viktor Orban has become unworthy of his office once and for all,” a joint statement from six opposition parties said. “We demand that he withdraws these bills and spends the rest of his time in office without theft and manipulation.” “This only goes to show that he no longer feels safe even in the election system he wrote for himself, which is fitting because he will lose,” the statement said.

Fidesz is by far the largest party in Hungary but a half-dozen opposition parties together could unseat Orban. Talks are under way on such cooperation for 2022 elections.

If the bill is passed, which is likely as Fidesz holds a two-thirds majority in Parliament, the diverse opposition parties will have to fully unite to field a single national list in the election, which could be difficult considering their very different platforms.

Or, they can keep their efforts separate and diminish their chances of unseating Orban.

The government says the bill is meant to “ensure that only parties with real voter support may field a national list.”

A separate bill also modifies the constitution to define only the state’s own revenues and expenditures as public funds. It would exclude state-linked organisations like state-owned companies, which could lead to those funds being more easily hidden from scrutiny.

Transparency International legal director Miklos Ligeti said “modification usually means a narrower scope, but we will have to see how precisely Fidesz wants to do it. They may or may not consider state-owned companies or foundations public. I doubt their intentions are good.”

The draft bill says the definition of ‘public funds’ needs clarification due diverging practical use of the term, in order to guarantee the transparent use of such funds. (Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Toby Chopra)

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