Sun, Nov 19, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Hungary analysts warn of possible protests in spring


After two months of political tensions that boiled over into street riots, Hungary now awaits a winter truce, but tempers could flare in spring over government austerity measures, analysts said.

A referendum, initiated by the main conservative opposition Fidesz party, is planned for spring on the Socialist-Liberal government's economic reforms, which include ending free public university education and raising individual healthcare contributions.

These reforms, aimed at overhauling wasteful public services, come on top of tax increases, energy price subsidy cuts, and mass public sector layoffs.

Local press reports have speculated that the price of gas could go up by as much as 70 percent for some consumers.

The government is scrambling to raise revenues and cut the highest public deficit in the EU, projected at 10.1 percent of GDP this year.

"[Spring] will be the time of labor unions, which are relatively weak, of protests and strikes after people come to terms with what awaits them with these neo-liberal [austerity] measures," sociologist Miklos Gaspar Tamas said.

In September, Budapest was rocked by street riots after the leak of a recording in which Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany is heard saying the government lied to voters about the state of the economy in order to win re-election in April.

Fidesz leader Viktor Orban, who lost the past two parliamentary elections, has said the riots were caused by outrage over Gyurcsany's false promises of tax cuts and society's rejection of the austerity measures.

The government, however, has said it was Orban who sparked riots with his inflammatory anti-government rhetoric, which galvanized violent far-right extremists who rampaged in the streets of Budapest on three nights in September.

Orban rode the wave of violence in a bid to oust Gyurcsany, organizing daily street demonstrations until Oct. 23, when riots erupted again on the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule.

Unfazed, Gyurcsany has pledged to stay on. He was strengthened after winning a vote of confidence in parliament early last month and by the fizzling out of anti-government demonstrations as cold weather set in.

"With the arrival of the winter, there will likely be a pause" in protests, said Peter Balazs, professor at Corvinus University in Budapest.

Fidesz still refuses to talk with Gyurcsany -- walking out of parliament each time the prime minister rises to speak -- but the main opposition party has backed down from calls for street protests.

One analyst said the economic challenges facing the country and the planned referendum, which still must be approved by the national electoral commission, could force the two main political parties to cooperate in the future.

"[The referendum] could build bridges by triggering a more rational discussion on the reform of pensions, social security and state administration," said Istvan Stumpf, a former minister under Orban and now an analyst at Szazadveg Foundation.

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