Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, running unchallenged, won the top post in the governing Socialist Party on Saturday, amid record-low support for his leadership and government.
Gyurcsány, who told delegates at two-day party congress in Budapest that they faced „a choice between reform and failure,” won with 526 of 590 votes cast. He will replace Education Minister István Hiller, who spent 2 1/2 years as chairman. Gyurcsány led the Socialists to victory in April 2006, the first time a Hungarian party won back-to-back elections.
In September, he was caught on tape admitting his party won by lying to voters about the state of the economy. He is now reducing the budget deficit by raising taxes and cutting subsidies, driving his party's popularity to record lows. As party chairman, he may find it easier to implement his economic program. „Pushing the reforms through against the party's will would be impossible,” said Bernadett Budai, an analyst at Vision Consulting in Budapest.
„The party's support is also very important to make sure there's no opportunity for a change in government.” The only way to remove a sitting Hungarian premier is through a majority vote in Parliament. Gyurcsány withstood opposition calls for his resignation last year, surviving a confidence vote in October. He was the first Hungarian politician to face such a ballot since the end of communism 17 years ago.
Gyurcsány cast his election as Socialist party chairman as „a vote of confidence in our politics.” He said he would only accept the post should 75% of delegates vote for him.
„I want to be captain of this team only if we are fired up with self confidence,” Gyurcsány told delegates on Saturday. „If we are going to have petty infighting, then we won't be up to the task.” The conference will end tomorrow. Support for the Socialist Party fell to 18% in December, Budapest-based pollster Gallup said on January 16.
Backing for former Premier Viktor Orbán’s opposition Fidesz party rose to 36%. The Socialists need to win the 2010 elections to keep Hungary on its course toward becoming a full-fledged free-market democracy, Gyurcsány said in his address. „The alternative to us is an anti-modernization, traditionalist, authoritarian-based nationalism,” he said.
Gyurcsány introduced his economic austerity measures last June after running up the widest budget shortfall in the European Union. The revelation that he lied to win re-election drove thousands of protesters into the streets in September and October.
While protests in Budapest have died down, thousands of people across the country have taken to the street to protest school closings and hospital shutdowns, both parts of the deficit-reduction plan. Gyurcsány ran unchallenged for the chairmanship because the protests don't constitute a „real crisis” for the party, said Gyula Hegyi, a senior Socialist and member of the European parliament.
„The people who are protesting against Gyurcsány are the ones who didn't vote for us in 2006,” he said in an interview. The square in front of Parliament in the capital's downtown has been sealed off for four months to prevent protesters from returning. The government on February 7 said a steel fence will remain across the area at least through the March 15 national holiday because of the threat of violence from what it calls extremist groups.
„The risk after October 2006 increased substantially, became permanent and imminent,” György Szilvásy, the minister who oversees the Prime Minister's Office and the secret service, said after a meeting of Hungary's National Security Council. „The number of threats has multiplied.” The opposition is boycotting Gyurcsány’s every appearance.
Orbán, prime minister from 1998 to 2002, accused the government of inciting the violence. „It is obvious that the government supports the actions of the extreme right,” Orbán said in a speech on February 16. „All the extreme and violent phenomena, the supposed terror threats and the fake assassinations are actually government tricks.” Gyurcsány in a February 20 conversation attributed the opposition's attack to a fear that his policies will attract supporters back to the Socialists in time for the 2010 election.
„I don't want them to sign a blank check for me by accident,” he said. „I also want the Socialist Party to contest the 2010 election with someone who has a chance to win. I think my government's performance will” be enough for that. (Bloomberg)