Stefan J. Bos, Worthy News Europe Bureau Chief reporting from Budapest
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (Worthy News) -- At least 25,000 protesters, many of them waving flags used by Hungary's pro-Nazi regime during World War Two, demanded early elections Sunday, April 5, after the ruling Hungarian Socialist Party agreed on a new candidate for prime minister to tackle the worst economic crisis in generations.
The 41-year old Gordon Bajnai, a political independent promoted to economy minister last year, will replace embattled Ferenc Gyurscany, who faces a "constructive vote of no confidence" as early as Monday, April 6. Gyurcsany, who also resigned as party leader, said he did not receive enough political support to push through necessary reforms to save the country from financial collapse.
In addition, Gyurscany failed to secure backing from the European Union for a proposed $241 billion rescue fund to help eastern European countries. Bajnai is expected to be confirmed as prime minister in a parliamentary vote on April 14. He plans to undertake the post till the scheduled elections next year with the aim to lead Hungary out of the economic crisis.
His proposals, announced last week, include abolishing bonuses such as "13th month wages" in the public sector and "13th month" bonus pensions from 2010. He also plans to reduce sick payments and freezing per-child family benefits for at least two years.
Bajnai made clear he would only fill the post if the Socialists continued to support his austerity measures, at a time when analysts the economy is expected to shrink by perhaps six percent this year. "Hungary has no time to waste, the crisis is no longer just in overseas news reports, it's the Hungarian reality," Bajnai told the party meeting.
"I don't want to become a great orator, I want to be a successful crisis manager so I'll give you the merciless truth. If we don't act now, tomorrow will hurt even more and the day after tomorrow will be unbearable," he added.
Hungary, narrowly avoided financial collapse last year with the help of a $25.1 billion rescue package from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and World Bank. Baijai stressed Hungary needs to slash spending to keep its budget on course and in line with IMF rules.
However he said that while the road to recovery will be difficult for this former East Block nation, his measures, if implemented, would eventually lead to "the Hungarian euro." Hungary wants to introduce the euro currency as early as 2012.
Yet on the streets of Budapest, people weren't impressed. "If this protest makes no impact, we will stage further demonstrations to press for early elections," one of the organizers, renowned architect Imre Makovecz, told Hungarian news agency MTI.
Many in the crowd on Budapest's Heroes Square, were waving red and white striped "Arpad" flags which were embraced by Hungary's Arrow Cross Party, linked to the Holocaust, in which some 600,000 Hungarian Jews died.
Far right demonstrators have defended the use of the flag, saying it also resembles the ancient Hungarian King Arpad dynasty. The protests underscored concerns among Hungarian churches about possible unrest because of the crisis and attacks against minorities, including gypsies, who prefer to be known as Roma.
"Repeated surveys have shown [the Socialist government] don't have the trust of the people, especially when we are in bad shape and tensions are growing towards the Roma and other minorities," said reverend Balazs Odor, ecumenical officer of the Reformed Church in Hungary, which comprises about one fifth of the country's 10 million citizens.
In late February, a father and his five-year-old son from Hungary's Roma minority were shot and killed as they tried to flee their home, which was torched by unknown assailants, the latest in a series of deadly incidents against the up to 800,000-strong community. "As churches, we have a mission to be on the side of the weak and excluded, and to raise our voices ophetically," Odor added in a recent interview with Ecumenical News International news service.
Hungary's Roman Catholic Bishops Conference has said it is also alarmed at deteriorating security conditions in the country, where elderly citizens have been vulnerable to attacks and robberies.
The Reformed church's presiding bishop, Gusztav Bolcskei, urged "conscience and responsibility" from citizens, and added authorities should place "the human person and society" at the centre of policies in the troubled country, where Christian news agency Worthy News has its European bureau.