Hungary's Prime Minister The Honest Liar

After a few shockingly honest words, Ferenc Gyurcsany is in trouble. He said his government had "screwed up" and that voters were lied to morning, evening and night. Now a lot of Hungarians are demanding the resignation of a prime minister they once respected for his straight talk.

By and


Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany faces demands for his resignation.
AFP

Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany faces demands for his resignation.

Ferenc Gyurcsany isn't exactly a friend of the measured word. The Hungarian prime minister once called the Saudi Arabian soccer team "terrorists," pitching his nation into a deep diplomatic crisis with several Arab states. When his own Socialist Party (MSZP) declined keep his predecessor, Peter Medgyessy, in power, Gyurcsany quipped, "Every man whose wife grows old has earned a younger woman," enraging female politicians and women's organizations. And in a debate on live TV he once made crystal clear what he thought of an argument by his conservative rival, Viktor Orbán. "Blah, blah, blah," said Gyurcsany.

Until now, such harsh comments haven't hurt his career; voters indulge him because they like his dazzling style. But the 45-year-old's charisma bonus may now be finished, because the clear language Gyurcsany loves has made him an enemy of the people in the streets of Budapest. A secret tape of a closed MSZP meeting played over Hungarian radio over the weekend unmasked Gyurcsany's own deceptions. Riots in the capital since Monday night have amounted to the worst street violence in Hungary since the anti-Soviet uprising in 1956, and opposition leaders as well as many citizens are calling for Gyurcsany to step down.

He's standing firm, though. "I'm doing my job," he said in an interview with the Associated Press. He won't consider resignation; he intends to restore order with "all available means." But he doesn't deny the tape's authenticity. He defends himself by saying he just wanted to wake up his colleagues. "There is only one reason behind my passion," he said, "-- to convince my party and then the country that we have to change and that I don't have to continue what happened in this country over the past 10 years."

On the day of Hungary's parliamentary elections last April, Gyurcsany gave what he thought was a closed talk to a circle of party colleagues about the precarious state of Hungary's budget. "We've lied in the morning, in the evening and at night" about the budget, he said, in order to get re-elected. "We did nothing for four years. Nothing," he went on. "We screwed up. Not a little, a lot. No European country has done something as boneheaded as we have … Plainly, we lied throughout the last year-and-a-half, two years."

Hungarian writer György Konrád describes it to SPIEGEL ONLINE as "a desperate speech," delivered under enormous pressure and meant only for party ears. Who released the tape –- and why now –- is still unclear, but "It was naïve of Gyurcsany," Konrád says, "to think it would stay private."

Broken promises

The demonstrations started peacefully, but by the end of Monday night at least 150 people were injured, including over a hundred police. Another 50 were injured on Tuesday. The protesters -- including vandals from Hungary's far-right scene -- threw paving stones and started fires. The cops fought back with tear gas. Firecrackers exploded; cars burned; ambulances sped through the streets under the first bursts of rain.

Also on Tuesday, black-clothed youths in hooded jackets and boots -- some equipped with gas masks -- provoked police by shouting: "Prepare for your death" and, "You police are all Jew pigs, you should be ashamed to confront Hungarians." At around two o'clock police deployed water cannons and chased protesters into side streets.

Gyurcsany had campaigned on promises of tax cuts, and allowed himself to be celebrated in April as the first prime minister in post-Communist Hungary to win re-election. But after the election he introduced a rigid course of economic reform that included tax hikes. "Living standards will fall drastically," warned an independent weekly magazine called HVG when the plans were announced. In July the parliament ratified Gyurcsany's reform plan with a majority of votes from the coalition he led to victory. The opposition resisted it because, it said, Gyurcsany had not informed the people during his campaign about the government's "true financial situation."

Hungary, in fact, has severe financial problems. It had hoped to join the euro zone in 2010, but this year the government expects a budget deficit of about 10 percent. The problem is homemade: Gyurcsany's predecessors had tried to keep the public happy by spending money they didn't have. If Finance Minister Lajos Bokros had kept the budget in shape during the mid-'90s, the ruling right-wing populist Viktor Orbán as well as Gyurcsany's Socialist predecessor, Peter Medgyessy (who came to power in 2002), might have been more thrifty. The deficit swelled, and even though Gyurcsany announced savings measures when he took over in 2004, in fact he just let the deficit grow.

Gyurcsany says he wants to make his nation healthy for the EU, even if it hurts. "We pay for refrigerator repairs and for auto insurance, why shouldn't we also pay for health insurance?" he asked rhetorically -- in his typical sharp style -- after the reform measures were introduced. He also sees dangers in Hungary, which is "open to a radical nationalism that's connected with socialist populism." Because of such remarks his opponents see him as an opportunist, with no convictions.

Young Communist to multi-millionaire

Gyurcsany used to lead Hungary's Communist Youth. When the Iron Curtain fell, he swung radically to free-market ideas and profited during the economic change. He used the chaos of the transition period to become a self-made businessman and pile up millions in assets.

In 2002 he returned to politics, became an advisor to Prime Minister Medgyessy, then sports minister in Medgyessy's cabinet. In September 2004 he became prime minister by snatching his party's leadership. Under Gyurcsany, the ex-Communist MSZP party had reshaped itself as "the new left wing" along the lines of Britain's Labour Party. Opponents call him a "champagne socialist" because of his swanky lifestyle.

In April he got the credit for averting a widely expected election defeat. His youthful, unconventional manner was popular. "He has pathos," says author Konrád, who was a dissident when Hungary was ruled by Communists. Gyurcsany's admission that he won the election by lying has now thrown a spotlight on his flamboyant political style. The young premier is being vilified in the streets as a liar.

One 53-year-old architect who didn't want to be named, said during the riots in Budapest on Tuesday: "He was one of the most powerful Communists, now he's one of the biggest capitalists. He cheats us in whatever way he can. We've got to put a stop to it."

On the square in front of the parliamentary building stands a huge statue of Ferenc Rakoczy, the Transylvanian prince who led an anti-Habsburg revolt from 1703 to 1711. Demonstrators laid a coffin in front of the statue and wrote on the lid: "We're burying the Gyurcsany government. There will be no resurrection."

With reporting from Reuters, AFP, and Alexander Schwabe in Budapest.

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