Friday, October 27, 2006


Hungary divided
Oct 25th 2006
From The Economist Global Agenda

Serious economic woes and more than a month of protests in the capital, Budapest, are polarising politics in Hungary. But the government is not yet wobbling


PLANNED as a solemn celebration of national reconciliation, the 50th anniversary of Hungary’s failed uprising against Soviet rule has turned into a bitter farce, the victim of the country’s savagely polarised politics. After tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon had cleared anti-government protesters from the streets, the official ceremonies went ahead with a glaring lack of public participation. Some 167 people have been injured in this week’s violence including one member of parliament from the main opposition party, Fidesz, and 17 policemen.

“Imagine an American president celebrating the Fourth of July in front of the Capitol with a spattering of foreign guests and a few handpicked kids on bikes in a parody of a parade, with a solitary fire truck for good measure and no ordinary citizens closer than a mile,” says Katharine Cornell Gorka, who runs a conservative think-tank in Budapest.

Hungary’s protesters do not just regard this week’s ceremonies as farcical. They also accuse the authorities of using the police to break up peaceful demonstrations, and of manipulating the country’s far-right fringe to discredit the mainstream opposition. Public broadcasters, they say, collude in this.

The opposition’s chief hate figure is the prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, a self-professed Blairite who leads Hungary’s former Communist Party. A leaked tape revealed him admitting, in an obscenity-peppered speech, that his government had systematically lied about the country’s parlous public finances to win the parliamentary elections in April, and that it had done nothing to reform them before or since.

Hungary’s public-sector deficit, the government now admits, is a staggering 10% of GDP. It proposes swingeing tax rises and spending cuts. The opposition wants a referendum on the austerity measures, the resignation of Mr Gyurcsany, and a non-party government for the next two years.

But Mr Gyurcsany shows no sign of budging. His coalition government easily won a vote of confidence in parliament earlier this month. His own party shows no sign of wobbling; its minority coalition partners, the liberals, are still on board too and support the spending cuts. On Tuesday October 24th Mr Gyurcsany told parliament that the opposition has failed to accept that it lost April's election. The government’s line is that the opposition is exploiting the country’s most evocative anniversary by cynically encouraging riots.

With some justice. The first demonstration a month ago ended in the seizure of the public-television building. A small thuggish ultra-nationalist element has been highly visible—particularly in the tent city that the protesters pitched outside the parliament building, before it was forcibly cleared by police on Monday. Some statements by leading opposition figures do seem to show a lack of confidence in parliamentary democracy. The leader of the Fidesz parliamentary group, Tibor Navracics, said this week that “Constitutional tools are useless, including parliament, if the government is unwilling to talk about our proposals.”

The protesters hope that the questionable police tactics this week will stoke their support. They plan to resume their daily demonstrations outside the parliament building, and to set up a new, formally-registered movement to press their demand for a change of government. That, they think, will eventually persuade the governing coalition to dump Mr Gyurcsany. “Sooner or later the prime minister’s party must see that it is impossible to go through with the needed changes if there is such a lack of confidence,” says Kinga Gal, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament.

Confidence is certainly in short supply. Mr Gyurcsany’s close family connections with the former regime infuriate staunch anti-communists. But the Fidesz leader, Viktor Orban, has proved an equally divisive figure, enthusiastically adopting opportunist and populist politics, and alienating centrist voters by his flirtation with the nationalist fringe. If Hungary’s opposition is really to get rid of Mr Gyurcsany, it may need to dump its own leader first.

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