Riots test Hungary's young democracy

The worst violence since the fall of communism erupted in Budapest late Monday, injuring more than 150.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

More than 100 policemen and 50 anti-government protesters were injured late Monday night and into the early morning Tuesday in Budapest after the protesters set fire to cars and stormed the state-run Hungarian Television building in the worst violence Hungary has seen since the fall of communism.

Tension had been mounting since Sunday, when a radio station aired a leaked recording of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany admitting his party had lied before April's general elections.

Hungarians were already angry at the ruling Socialist-Liberal coalition for introducing unannounced tax and energy price increases after being re-elected, and thousands of anti-government, right-wing, protesters took to the streets after the tape was aired.

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The country has been divided between right and left since the changeover to democracy in 1990, and divisions have in the past spilled over into bitter campaigns. While the Monday's violence has shocked Hungarians, few see long-term damage to the country's young democracy.

Mr. Gyurcsany, a former Communist youth leader, has resisted opposition calls to resign, and some feel the riots could work in his favor. While the right-wing opposition party Fidesz, founded by dissidents who protested against Soviet rule in the 1980s, did not direct the violence, several analysts feel charged language used in campaigning for the upcoming local elections contributed to the blow up.

"Viktor Orban [the Fidesz leader] has been using words like 'uprising' and 'radicalism'," says Krisztian Szabados, the director of the independent Political Capital Institute. "These words incited people."

How the protests began

The riots began after several hundred right-wing extremists broke off from a peaceful crowd of around ten thousand demanding Gyurcsany's resignation late Monday evening. The breakaway group laid siege to the television building on Freedom Square in an effort to have their demands read out.

The mob, supported by several thousand onlookers, set fire to cars, threw cobblestones at police and damaged an unpopular monument to the Soviet troops that liberated Hungary from the Nazis in 1945. The police attempted to control the crowd with water cannons and tear gas but were forced to retreat, allowing the protestors to briefly occupy the building before dispersing.

According to Mr. Szabados, prominent right-wingers helped pump up the protestors by comparing the demonstrations to the 1956 uprising, in which ordinary Hungarians rose up against Communist rule only to be brutally crushed. The 50th anniversary of the uprising falls in October.

Maria Wittner, a Fidesz MP who as a young woman fought in the uprising, gave a speech Monday in which she said: "This is already a revolution."

Who's to blame?

Szabados finds this rhetoric irresponsible. "Last night was a breach of the peace, not a revolution. To compare it to 1956 was ridiculous and those who did so are legally responsible."

However, Fidesz laid the blame squarely at the feet of the prime minister.

"Ferenc Gyurcsany alone is responsible for what happened last night," Fidesz spokesman Peter Sziijarto said in a statement.

Opposition parties are increasing their calls for Gyurcsany to resign, who made it clear he would stand firm and vowed to crack down on further demonstrations. He called for calm, branded the riots "Hungary's longest, darkest night" since the fall of communism and said that he had asked the police to do whatever it took to quell further illegal demonstrations.

Local elections are scheduled for Oct. 1, and several large rallies are planned before then, creating the possibility of further incident. However, most analysts believe that the violence has shocked the general populace and there will be no escalation.

The demonstrations first began on Sunday, when Hungarian Radio aired a speech Gyurcsany made at a meeting of his Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) in May.

"Obviously we have lied. It is clear that what we were saying was not true," Gyurcsany said in the speech. "We haven't done anything for the last four years. I can't mention a single political step we can be proud of ...."

In the speech sprinkled with expletives, Gyurcsany admitted his party had "screwed up" the economy and had hidden the scale of a planned austerity package, which has since been introduced. Hungary has been under pressure from the European Commission and international investors for some time over its economy, and the austerity package is aimed at reducing the huge budget deficit and joining the euro zone, thus completing the long transition from a state-driven to a stable market economy.

The demonstrations could backfire on the opposition, say analysts. "Last night I said that until the first stone is thrown, Fidesz would be better off, but that as soon as the demonstrations turn violent, Fidesz will lose," Szabados says. "Now the average Hungarian is shocked. What we can say at the moment is that these events will cause a political crisis within Fidesz."

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