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Hungary: Gyurcsany's Controversial Comments True To Form

Gyurcsany calls for zero tolerance for rioters during cabinet meeting in Budapest on September 20 (epa) PRAGUE, September 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The political crisis continues in Hungary as police and demonstrators calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany clashed for a second night in Budapest.

Up to 50 people were reported injured as riot police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators early today near the headquarters of the ruling Socialist Party.

Caught Admitting to Lies

Gyurcsany has been at the center of a scandal that threatens to throw Hungary into a political crisis. The 45-year-old politician, seen as one of the most successful young leaders in postcommunist Eastern Europe, has admitted to lying for years to Hungarians about the state of their country's economy to win reelection.

Hungary's budget deficit is expected to top 10 percent of the gross domestic product this year -- the highest percentage in the 25-nation EU.

Both Gyurcsany's Socialists and competing parties waged election campaigns earlier this year that ignored the rising deficit and featured competing spending promises. Only after the Socialists won did they announce a budget austerity program and plans for reforms -- something opposition leaders have called deceitful.

Gyurcsany's stunning admission of lying, made public through a leaked recording broadcast on September 17 by the Hungarian media, has led to violent street protests for two nights in a row in the capital. The violence -- the worst since the 1956 Hungarian Uprising -- has prompted the conservative opposition to call for Gyurcsany's resignation.

During a private Socialist Party meeting on May 26, Gyurcsany said: "We don't have too many choices. The reason is because we screwed it up. Not a little bit, but very much. None of the other European countries have done such stupid things that we did. We can explain it. Eventually, we lied through the last one and-a-half or two years. It was entirely clear that what we said was not the truth."

Benefiting From Uproar?

The tape appears to have thrown the Socialists, who in April were the first party to win reelection in the postcommunist era, into crisis.

But Gyurcsany has stood firmly by his statements, proving once again his maverick credentials. Furthermore, some commentators say he may emerge a winner from the crisis.

Analyst Gabor Bodis of the Hungarian international television channel Duna says that media-savvy Gyurcsany was quick to turn the whole furor to his advantage.

"It might be [playing to his advantage], very easily, because after the [tape] scandal broke out, just hours after that, the prime minister was on every television station in Budapest," Bodis says. "So he was ready to answer the questions, he was ready to put all his remarks in the broader context."

Rapid Rise

Gyurcsany's unusual career both in business and politics has made him a poster child not only for Hungary, but for the whole "New Europe" of postcommunist democracies.

Rioting in Budapest early on September 20 (epa)

"First of all, he is not a regular politician," Bodis notes. "In communist times, he was one of the leaders of the young communists, then after that he became a very successful businessman in postcommunist times. After that, he became in the [Socialist Prime Minister Peter] Medgyessy cabinet [from 2002-04] the sport and youth minister."

Gyurcsany's opulent lifestyle and his explosive temperament have never kept him too far from controversy. His successive roles as a devout young communist leader, then a successful businessman, and eventually a market-oriented Socialist leader have prompted some to call him an opportunist.

Born in Papa, western Hungary, to a poor family, young Gyurcsany held several top positions within Communist Party youth groups. But by the late 1980s, he had already left politics in favor of a very successful, but controversial business career.

Some critics say that he used his former communist connections to acquire his fortune, which was estimated at some $15 million three years ago.

When he returned to politics in 2002 as an adviser to then Prime Minister Medgyessy, Gyurcsany's thirst for success and his managerial skills soon turned him into one of the leaders of the Socialist Party.

Bitter Personal Rivalry

Shortly before the 2004 election, the party was in dire need of an appealing leader. The Socialists were lagging badly in the polls behind the conservative Fidesz party, led by the charismatic populist Viktor Orban.

But Gyurcsany changed all that. "He was successful in convincing the old [Socialist] Party members that he is the best man [to run for] for this [prime minister] position," Bodis says.

"The Socialist Party -- two years ago, between the two elections -- the Socialists were 20 percent behind the leading opposition party, which is Fidesz.... He [Gyurcsany] was very successful during this election campaign and they [the Socialists] won the election," he adds.

By the end of April, Gyurcsany had become the new rising star of Hungarian politics. He had managed not only to achieve the hitherto impossible by keeping the Socialists in power -- he had also passed Orban in popularity.

Gyurcsany's victory thus marked the beginning of an unprecedented personal rivalry in Hungary's postcommunist politics.

It had become obvious already during the campaign that Gyurcsany and Orban personally dislike each other. In one of his most notorious public remarks, Gyurcsany curtly dismissed Orban's electoral promises as being mere "blah-blah-blah."

Analysts say the two politicians' rivalry has its main roots in their similarities. Both are young -- Orban is 44 -- both were involved with the communist youth organizations in the past, both are success-oriented, no-nonsense businessmen.

"The main reason why they don't like each other is because before Gyurcsany, Orban was the star of the Hungarian political life," Bodis says. "Among the old Socialists, they couldn't find a person who could match Mr. Orban. The first one who appeared was Mr. Gyurcsany. That is why Orban, with good reason, feels that he has a very successful rival."

In spite of the current crisis, the verdict is still out on who's going to win the rivalry. The first hint might come soon, in local elections scheduled for October 1.

Orban's Fidesz are once again well ahead in the polls. But then again, so were they before the general elections.