Image: Protesters in Hungary
Leonhard Foeger  /  Reuters
Protesters run after Hungarian riot police used tear gas on the streets of Budapest early Thursday. news services
updated 9/21/2006 12:19:39 AM ET 2006-09-21T04:19:39

Hungarian protesters vowed to keep up pressure on Thursday for leftist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany to resign after his admission he lied to voters to win elections in April sparked mass protests.

Budapest has been on edge after protests on Monday and Tuesday turned violent in the most serious disturbances since a 1956 uprising against Soviet occupiers.

More than 200 people have been injured and 137 arrested in the two nights of clashes that police said involved soccer hooligans who had hijacked peaceful anti-government protests.

An estimated 15,000 gathered at the neo-Gothic parliament on Wednesday with only minor incidents between riot police and a couple of hundred who broke off from the main demonstration.

Officials followed through on promises to crack down hard on what they have called a small group of hooligans who have fought pitched battles, torched cars and on Monday night stormed the state television building and looted it.

‘We will come back tomorrow’
Protesters at the main rally said they were determined to continue demonstrating over higher taxes and fees for healthcare and university tuition, as well as Gyurcsany’s statement that he and his Socialist party had lied for years about Hungary’s budget in order to win the election.

“We will come back tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after. As long as we have to. Until he’s gone,” said Budapest resident Tibor Kozma in the Kossuth Square at parliament.

Gyurcsany, who was also caught on tape telling his Socialist party they did nothing for the past four years, rejected calls to step down and said he would press on with budget reforms.

“The policy of raw emotion and radicalism are in no way a viable path,” he said sternly at the beginning of a public cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

“The government does not intend to change its policy.”

But Gyurcsany’s credibility has been severely damaged and his Socialist Party’s popularity has plunged ahead of key Oct. 1 local elections. A Gallup poll conducted on Tuesday showed 43 percent of respondents believed he should resign, while 38 pct said he does not need to step down. The rest were undecided.

The turmoil has also weakened the forint currency.

Gyurcsany wants his party to abandon the spendthrift ways that caused Hungary’s budget deficit to surge to 10.1 percent of gross domestic product this year, the highest gap in the 25-nation European Union.

Credit-rating agency Fitch lowered Hungary’s outlook on foreign and local currency issuer default ratings to ’negative’ from ’stable’ on Wednesday citing concern that reform plans would be diluted or abandoned if the prime minister was ousted.

Anger over health, tuition hikes
The protests were triggered by a recording that surfaced Sunday on which Gyurcsany admitted lying “morning, evening and night” about the economy during the campaign. He has not denied making the statement.

The outpouring of rage may be linked to austerity measures Gyurcsany’s Socialist-led coalition has implemented in order to rein in a state budget deficit expected to surpass 10 percent of gross domestic product this year — the largest in the European Union.

The government has raised taxes and announced plans to lay off scores of state employees, introduce direct fees in the health sector and start charging tuition for most university students.

Karoly Arvai  /  Reuters
Hungarian riot police use teargas against anti-government protesters front of the state television building in Budapest early Tuesday morning.
Until the scandal suddenly broke this weekend, the 45-year-old Gyurcsany had been the Socialist Party’s golden boy — a youthful, charismatic leader promising to lead his nation to the prosperity as a full EU member.

His coalition with the Alliance of Free Democrats in April became the first Hungarian government to win re-election since the return to democracy in 1990.

“The parties behind the government have given (my program) full support ... and we have to go ahead,” Gyurcsany told the AP.

“In Hungary, we have not witnessed these kinds of protests in the last 15-20 years, but just because 2,000 or 3,000 people don’t understand what they can and cannot do, it’s not a right to disturb the peace of the country,” he said.

“I’m absolutely sure that the Hungarian police will be able to handle the situation and ensure security and restore calm.”

Police chief’s resignation offer rejected
Justice Minister Jozsef Petretei, who also oversees the police force, submitted his resignation because of the outbreak of violence, but his offer was rejected by Gyurcsany.

The violence started Monday night after several hundred people broke away from the protest outside parliament and marched over to the nearby TV building, demanding to deliver a statement in a live broadcast.

While most of demonstrators watched, a few dozen broke through police lines and into the building. Police tried to disperse them with water cannon sprays but the truck was quickly disabled by the rioters, some of whom escorted the police officers operating the vehicle to safety.

Several cars near the TV building were set on fire, their flames scorching the building.

Rioters also vandalized a large obelisk commemorating Soviet soldiers who were killed driving Nazi forces from Hungary at the end of World War II.

In the recording leaked Sunday to local media, Gyurcsany could be heard admitting that his government coalition, the first in post-communist Hungary to win re-election, had lied about the economy — keeping it afloat through “hundreds of tricks” and thanks to “divine providence.”

‘Lied morning, evening and night’
Gyurcsany’s comments — made in May to the Socialists’ group of parliamentary deputies — were full of crude remarks.

“We screwed up. Not a little, a lot,” Gyurcsany was heard saying. “No European country has done something as boneheaded as we have.”

“I almost died when for a year and a half we had to pretend we were governing. Instead, we lied morning, evening and night,” he told his fellow Socialists.

President Laszlo Solyom asked Gyurcsany to publicly recognize his error, saying the news of the remarks had thrown the country into a “moral crisis.” He also chastised the prime minister for “knowingly” jeopardizing people’s faith in democracy.

Gyurcsany defended himself by saying that was he trying to convince his party about the urgent and inevitable need for comprehensive reforms and to change the political culture.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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