Once Shining Star, Hungary Falters ; an Opposition Rally Friday Is Part of a Broader Populism That Has Stalled the Young Democracy

Article excerpt

The political and social crisis that has engulfed Hungary for almost three weeks intensified on Thursday as the main right-wing opposition party Fidesz announced a massive street rally for Friday.

The rally, which could spark further violence, coincides with a vote of confidence called for by the beleaguered prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany.

After defeat in local elections on Sunday and criticism from the nation's president, the prime minister - under fire for recent revelations that he lied about the country's economy in the run-up to his reelection last spring - called the vote of confidence in an attempt to defuse the crisis.

Fidesz leader Viktor Orban, who labeled the vote a "dirty trick," responded by calling his supporters out onto the street and vowing to keep them there until Mr. Gyurcsany resigns.

With neither party ready to back down, the stage is set for a battle over the future of Hungary's young democracy. If Gyurcsany manages to retain power, his government would have several election- free years to solidify and strengthen the country's progress.

But should the opposition succeed in ousting the prime minister, it would be a major victory for the populism and political squabbling that has stalled Hungary's climb out of communism since 1989.

It could also show the way the wind is blowing in the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. Hungary led the way as the region transitioned from communism. Now, with political problems also afflicting its neighbors, Hungary's plight may well symbolize the problems facing democracy across the entire region.

The real threat to stability comes from the fact that Fidesz has no constitutional way to remove Gyurcsany. The backing of the coalition ensures victory for the prime minister in the confidence vote, and the only option left open to Mr. Orban is people power.

Fidesz has in the past been able to amass hundreds of thousands of supporters for political rallies, and many fear that the large- scale demonstration could lead to a repeat of the violent scenes that blighted the first few days of the crisis.

"Hundreds of thousands of people will be on the streets and I don't know if Fidesz can control the right-wing extremists," says Krisztian Szabados, director of the independent Political Capital Institute. "I expect demonstrations and riots to continue," he says.

Power struggle obstructs progress

Part of the reason that Orban is so desperate to oust the prime minister is the fact that this may be his last chance at power.

Until a recording came along of Gyurcsany admitting he and his Hungarian Socialist Party party had lied, the former prime minister's political career was on a downward spiral after two general election defeats in a row. …