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Hungary's prime minister stands firm as protests rage

Socialist leader says he won't quit despite violence

Protesters met at the parliament building yesterday in Budapest. Thousands of Hungarians protested Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany’s admission that he lied to win reelection.
Protesters met at the parliament building yesterday in Budapest. Thousands of Hungarians protested Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany’s admission that he lied to win reelection. (Leonhard Foeger/ Reuters)

BUDAPEST -- When Rita Czuppon heard how hugely Hungary's socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany had lied about the economy to win last April's elections, she packed her rucksack, stuck a small national flag on top of it and set off to Kossuth Square with her ten-month-old daughter.

``I hope Gyurcsany knows how much the people think about his lying," said Czuppon, 31, who since Sunday has been among the thousands of demonstrators in the political heart of Budapest. ``The former communist regime lied to us. Now Gyurcsany has lied. He has lost all legitimacy. He does not have the people behind him. I will keep coming here until he resigns. It is time for a new beginning."

The 45-year-old prime minister, who became a millionaire in the race to capitalism in the 1990s and now heads the Hungarian Socialist Party, has insisted he is not going to quit and reiterated at a Cabinet meeting yesterday that ``we will work without reversing course" and introduce economic reforms.

But the protests and violence this week in Budapest underscore the fragility of political life and law and order in post-communist Hungary. While the overwhelming majority of protesters have been peaceful, violence has left Budapest streets littered with the burned-out shells of cars and raised questions about why the police have not been more forceful in moving against easily identifiable skinheads, soccer fans, and rightist extremists who have been blamed for most of the violence.

And in growing concern about the violence that has erupted each night since Monday after peaceful demonstrations, Gyurcsany said, ``We will have no patience with them."

Gyurscany has met with both the chief of Budapest police, and the national police. More than 200 people have been injured and 137 arrested in the clashes, and most of the injured have been police.

Gyurcsany issued a rare joint statement with President Laszlo Solyom warning against further large scale rallies, Agence France-Presse reported.

``In light of the violent events of yesterday (Tuesday) evening and this dawn, the organizers of every mass event should consider their own ability as well as that of the police to guarantee security and that participants do not cross the line of legality," the statement said.

The government admitted yesterday the police had been slow to deal with violent demonstrators, which they said had been caused by football hooligans. ``There have been some mistakes by the police," said Emese Danks, the government spokesperson. ``This vulgarism is very difficult to handle."

Danks also blamed the opposition for not doing enough to rein in the hooligans. ``The football hooligans are warmed up by political parties," she said in an interview. Fidesz, the largest of the opposition parties, denied any involvement in stirring up the violence.

Gyurscany's determination to ride out the protests will depend on whether he can galvanize enough support, not only from voters but also from his own party for changes the Socialists have postponed since coming to power in 2002. These would include tax increases, charges for health care, tuition fees, and sharp cuts in a bloated public sector.

They are part of a strategy aimed at reining in the budget deficit, which is a tenth of the country's gross domestic product, and preparing Hungary's eventual conversion to the euro.

So far, his supporters are sticking by their leader. They say Gyurcsany, chosen two years ago to give the Socialists a newer and younger look, should be given a chance to introduce reforms. ``Yes, he lied, but many other politicians have lied too," said Ferenc Pailik, 26, a waiter.

But inside the party, there is a growing sense of unease, according to analysts. The catalyst for this week's unrest was a tape recording made during a speech on May 26 to what was supposed to be a closed meeting of top Socialist party officials but which was leaked to the media. During that meeting, Gyurcsany spoke with apparent contempt for the electorate and said his party had squandered four years in power by doing nothing.

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