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Hungarian opposition calls for vote after violence

Hungary's main opposition party demanded a national vote within five months to block key parts of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s economic reforms, which triggered weeks of street protests and clashes with police.

Security forces were preparing for another night of rioting after battling protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets last night on the 50th anniversary of Hungary's anti-Soviet uprising. Demonstrators have been calling for Gyurcsány’s resignation since mid-September. „There is obviously a police presence, we are prepared,” police spokesman Oszkár Sas said in a telephone interview yesterday evening. „There is peace and quiet now, but you never know. We are hoping it will stay quiet.” Fidesz, which on Monday organized a rally in central Budapest close to where police started clashing with protesters, called for a referendum on economic policies by March. Experts on public television explained that this could not be realized so soon, but maybe only within or about a year. Leaders of Hungary's coalition parties, meanwhile, are pledging to stand by Gyurcsány and his austerity package. The measures are designed to help Hungary cut the biggest budget deficit in the European Union. The EU has said it will not allow Hungary to adopt the euro until it controls its finances. Fidesz's referendum would ask voters if they agree with plans to impose a tuition fee at state universities, to sell hospitals to private companies, to allow supermarkets and gas stations to sell medicines, and to charge a fee visit a doctor.

Health Minister Lajos Molnár, who is pushing health reform measures to clamp down on unnecessary health spending, said a referendum would have little impact on his plans. „The government has a majority, a solid majority, everybody agrees, and they're the ones who vote on laws,” he said in an interview in Parliament yesterday. Gábor Kuncze, leader of the junior coalition partner, the Free Democrats' Alliance, reiterated his support for Gyurcsány, the first leader since the collapse of communism in 1989 to win a second term in power in Hungary. „The government must persevere with the program,” Kuncze told journalists outside Parliament. „The coalition will see the program through and will stand by the prime minister.” Fidesz must collect 200,000 signatures and have referendum questions approved by the National Elections Committee before a vote can be held, Peter Szigeti, the committee's president, said in a telephone interview. Questions can also be challenged in court, lengthening the process by several months, he added.

Damage caused by the Monday riots, mostly to the city's transportation system, was estimated at Ft 200 million ($948,296), the Budapest mayor's office said in a statement yesterday. Officers arrested 131 people and 57 are still in custody, government spokeswoman Emese Danks said in a statement. (Bloomberg)