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Olympic Champion Becomes Hungary's President

Hungary's newly elected president Pal Schmitt speaks in parliament after deputies elected him as the next head of state, in Budapest, 29 Jun 2010

Hungary's newly elected president Pal Schmitt speaks in parliament after deputies elected him as the next head of state, in Budapest, 29 Jun 2010

Hungary's parliament has elected the country's new president, amid opposition concerns he will be too accommodating to plans of the ruling center right Fidesz Party, which include changing the nation's constitution.

Hungary's parliament applauded Pal Schmitt, a leading figure of the ruling center right Fidesz party, after he was elected president with an overwhelming majority of 263 votes over his main rival, Socialist Andras Balogh.

A two-time Olympic champion, the 68-year-old said that as president, he would advocate health, sports, education, the Hungarian language, and promote civil organizations and solidarity.

Critics fear he will be to supportive of Fidesz plans, ranging from controversial media legislation that advocacy groups say will limit press freedom, to changes in the recession-hit country's constitution.

But in a speech to parliament, Mr. Schmitt shrugged off the criticism.

He said that a president should be above the parties, and he therefore gives up his membership of the Fidesz Party. He said he wants to "respect the constitution" and all opinions in parliament - and that "it therefore does not matter who chose" him for the post." Mr. Schmitt makes it clear that neutrality from parties does not mean a neutrality from values. He says he feels close to a dedication to the nation, a Christian humility, humanism, and civic values."

He will take office on August 6, replacing President Laszlo Solyom, whom analysts say is more independent.

Although the role of president is largely ceremonial in Hungary, he can send legislation back to parliament for consideration or refer matters to the Constitutional Court - something Mr. Solyom often did, but Mr. Schmitt is not expected to do.

Mr. Schmitt's election represents another setback for the Hungarian Socialist Party, which lost the recent parliamentary elections.

The Socialist presidential candidate Andras Balogh had urged parliament to choose him to help Hungarians overcome the worst economic crisis in years.

He says he wants to draw attention to the social problems of society at a time of a major economic crisis in the country, and that he wants "to fight for employment for all people."

Mr. Schmitt becomes Hungary's fourth president since the country's transition from communism to democracy 20 years ago. The international community is watching closely to see if he can boost the country's relatively young parliamentary democracy.

With the ruling Fidesz party holding a two-thirds majority in parliament, smaller opposition groups fear they will not be consulted at a time when the country needs to introduce drastic reforms, especially in the economic arena.

Hungary received about $25 billion in financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Union to avoid bankruptcy.

But the recently elected government will soon have to negotiate about future arrangements as the country struggles to overcome the impact of the global financial crisis and years of postponed economic and social reforms.