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Hungary PM halts reforms, may cause gov’t split

Hungary’s Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány opened a serious rift with his liberal coalition partner on Saturday when he backtracked on unpopular reforms and said he would sack his allies’ health minister.

In the face of falling popularity, Gyurcsány told a Socialist Party meeting he would redraft a law allowing private capital into the health system and renegotiate the coalition agreement with the Alliance of Free Democrats. “The coalition agreement is not scripture. After two years, I think there are parts to be renegotiated,” Gyurcsány said. “Support for (health) reform has decreased so drastically that it could be recovered only by a new minister.”

The Free Democrats, who have 20 seats in parliament against the Socialists’ 190, rejected the sacking of the minister in an escalation of the tetchy relationship between the two parties who have governed since 2002 and won re-election in 2006. “(Health Minister) Ágnes Horváth is implementing the government program with strong compromises from (our) point of view,” the party said in a statement published on its Web site. The Free Democrats said they would discuss Gyurcsány’s decision at a meeting on Monday.

The Socialists and the Free Democrats have had frequent disagreements over health reform and taxation and the smaller party is also mired in a vote-rigging scandal over its leadership election last year which may lead to it being re-run. Gyurcsány’s move came after a humiliating defeat in a referendum this month in which almost a million Socialist voters sided with the opposition to strike down key parts of the government’s reform agenda. Support for the Socialists has dropped to 15%, according to the latest Gallup poll, while the Free Democrats are polling just 2%, well below the 5% threshold needed to get into parliament. At the party meeting, Gyurcsány said he had discussed Saturday’s proposals with his coalition ally in advance, but political analysts say there now is a greater risk then ever that the coalition could split.

“The Free Democrats seem to have closed ranks after this announcement. Every one of their MPs now stands for the same policy, which is not the sacking of (the health minister) but the continuation and further discussion of reforms,” said Zoltán Somogyi at think-tank Political Capital. (Reuters)