Sat, Sep 23, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Hungarian PM looking to ride out storm

HANGING ON Ferenc Gyurcsany's chances of staying in power are starting to look a little better, with some analysts even suggesting he has been strengthened by recent events


Street violence is down and opinion polls are getting better. As Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany continues to resist pressure to quit for lying to the country, the ride remains rocky -- but his chances of keeping his job are growing.

Five days after the scandal broke, Gyurcsany hopes time -- and his charisma -- will help him sell the message that he's the one to pull the country out of its economic mess.

Things can still go wrong for the telegenic communist functionary turned tycoon whose leaked acknowledgment Sunday that he lied unleashed street fury unseen since the 1956 anti-Soviet revolution 50 years ago.

The opposition is demanding a probe into Gyurcsany's admission that the government had managed to keep the country afloat only through "divine providence, the abundance of cash in the world economy and hundreds of tricks." If cooked books or other wrongdoing come to light, that could tip the scales irrevocably in favor of Gyurcsany's opponents.

But time may be healing the anti-Gyurcsany fury that sparked two days of rioting -- leaving close to 200 police and demonstrators injured and hundreds of thousands of dollars damage.

A Gallup poll of 614 voters from Tuesday showed 38 percent opposed to Gyurcsany's resignation, up 4 percentage points from the day before, with those wanting him out holding steady at 43 percent. The survey's margin of error was 4.1 percent.

And a poll conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday by the Szazadveg-Forsense organization had 48 percent of respondents wanting Gyurcsany to stay, with 45 percent seeking his resignation. The state MTI news agency, which published the poll, did not give the number of respondents and a margin of error.

The mood on the street is also telling. Pre-dawn clashes on Thursday were far less serious than the violence that convulsed Budapest the two previous nights, showing that some of the fury is ebbing. And the main demonstration, which again drew about 10,000 people Thursday to the front of parliament, has remained peaceful.

All of which gives Gyurcsany time to do what he does best -- persuade. Since the scandal broke, the telegenic 45-year old has appeared repeatedly on television to justify his actions.

The public was stunned by Gyurcsany's blunt admissions of government ineptitude during his first term and the cynicism contained in a 25-minute tape widely aired and published by news media.

"We did nothing for four years. Nothing," Gyurcsany says on the tape, made during a private talk with Socialist parliament members peppered with crude expressions. "We screwed up. Not a little, a lot."

"No European country has done something as boneheaded as we have," he says. "Plainly, we lied throughout the last year and a half, two years."

Still the comments allow him to suggest that he actually has the best interests of the country at heart in telling his party that it's time to stop lying to the electorate and do everything to pull the country out of its calamitous financial straits.

"In some sense their hand has inarguably been strengthened," said Tomos Packer, a senior economist with London-based Global Insight, of Gyurcsany and his government. "He's been strengthened because he's come clean about the situation."

In the past several weeks, Gyurcsany has also admitted that to have a better chance to win last April's elections, the government covered up the true size of the state budget deficit and passed a law introducing tax cuts now described by the prime minister as a mistake.

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