* Party chief Mesterhazy says to revive economy, restore
* PM Orban's party still strongest; half of voters undecided
By Marton Dunai
BUDAPEST, March 9 Hungary's opposition
Socialists launched their campaign for 2014 elections on
Saturday by pledging economic revival and an end to a perceived
anti-democratic drift and troubled foreign relations during
Prime Minister Viktor Orban's time in power.
Orban has often clashed with the European Union, United
States and international lenders over windfall taxes on banks
and energy firms and a slew of legislation that critics say have
cemented Fidesz's grip in the civil service, courts and media.
His conservative Fidesz party has angered many voters with
deficit-fighting tax rises and constitutional amendments to
tighten its hold on an array of national institutions.
The Socialists, who governed from 2002-2010, were trounced
at the last election amid a severe economic slump and corruption
scandals. But they have yet to rebound much in voters' minds,
now polling 12 percent compared with Fidesz's 26 percent.
The left-wing opposition must team up with the newly formed
Together 2014 party of former premier Gordon Bajnai to have any
chance of winning the next national vote. The parties plan to
hold talks about forming an alliance later this year.
About 12,000 Socialist supporters gathered in Budapest's
biggest sport arena to hear Chairman Attila Mesterhazy say the
party had been rejuvenated and a comprehensive programme had
been drafted to take on Orban.
With broad strokes Mesterhazy paid heed to all groups of
society, promising to make unemployment benefits available for a
period of six months instead of three months currently, raise
the minimum wage and improve healthcare.
He condemned Fidesz's economic policies and said it would
take at least two years to restore growth and create jobs in
Hungary's economy, which shrank by 1.7 percent in 2012.
"To do this first we need to restore confidence. To restore
confidence we need clear rules and a transparent government...,
a new balance between the state, market and consumers ... and an
end to corruption."
He promised to reinvigorate bank lending and distribute
European Union development funds more efficiently.
Orban says he has fixed an economic mess and high budget
deficit inherited from his Socialist predecessors and stopped
Hungary following Greece into financial freefall.
Mesterhazy also said the Socialists would work with
grassroots groups and unions to rehabilitate the rule of law
starting with the constitution which Fidesz overhauled.
He said a Socialist government would be cooperative not
confrontational in foreign relations, repairing damaged ties
with the European Union and other international partners.
"We must not wage a freedom fight against Europe, rather
cooperate in an alliance so that we can represent our national
interests better," Mesterhazy said.
Fidesz upset many Hungarians by nationalising pension fund
assets, introducing new taxes on financial transactions and
telecommunications and increasing influence over education,
cultural institutions, the media and the judiciary.
But since Fidesz's landslide election victory in 2010, the
left-wing opposition has been fragmented and unable to
capitalise on Orban's loss of about a million supporters and the
undecided view of almost half the eight million electorate.