BUDAPEST Hungary's deep political divisions came to the fore on Tuesday at rallies marking its failed 1956 revolution against Soviet rule as the prime minister derided EU policies and a leading opponent announced he would run to unseat him.
Right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban, speaking to a crowd outside parliament estimated by state news agency MTI at 150,000, rallied support for his maverick economic strategy that has frequently put him at loggerheads with the European Union.
"We accept the rules that apply to all, but we cannot accept that others should tell us what we can and cannot do in our own country," the 49-year-old Orban said in a fiery speech broadcast on state television.
As Orban spoke, former prime minister Gordon Bajnai, who led a government of technocrats backed by the Socialist party in 2009-2010, announced his return to national politics aiming to unseat Orban at an election due in 2014.
"The year 2014 can bring a change of fortune," Bajnai, 44, told about 25,000 opposition demonstrators in central Budapest about 2 km (1.2 miles) from the pro-government rally.
"This government has broken, systematically, vertebra by vertebra the backbone of Hungarian democracy," Bajnai said. "The state has become a tool for corruption."
"This government is a government of failures, therefore, this government must go," he added, laying the foundations of a centrist opposition alliance that he said would formulate an agenda in the period ahead.
Before Bajnai took the stage, several hundred far-right supporters tried to disrupt the opposition gathering, a Reuters photographer said.
ALIENATED FORMER SUPPORTERS
Orban's centralizing style and unorthodox policies have alienated many of his former supporters since his 2010 election landslide.
Shunning EU advice from Brussels, which Orban has compared to Hungary's former Soviet overlords, the premier has flagged higher taxes on banks and other big businesses to curb the budget deficit.
Critics say the measures and Orban's reluctance to change his flagship flat-tax policy have prolonged a crisis in the central European country of 10 million people, which is seeking a loan from the EU and IMF to shore up its shrinking economy.
Greeted with a sea of red, white and green national flags by supporters filling a large square and neighboring streets outside parliament on the banks of the Danube river, Orban rejected what he called outside meddling in Hungary's affairs.
"We accept the rules of European cooperation that apply to all. But we do not accept that, using however refined methods, outsiders should govern us," Orban told the crowd, drawing a big round of applause on an unusually warm October afternoon.
Orban's ruling Fidesz and the main opposition Socialists both nudged higher in an opinion poll this month, but more than half of eligible voters had no party preference.
The far-right Jobbik party, which holds 45 of 386 parliament seats and has capitalized on widespread resentment of Hungary's around 700,000 Roma, also staged its own rally, calling for a purge of the current political mainstream from public life, news agency MTI reported.
Hungary's uprising in 1956 was the first serious blow to the Soviet bloc established after Soviet tanks drove out Nazi German troops from Central Europe at the end of World War Two. Though the uprising was crushed, its impact was lasting and it played a role in the collapse of Soviet rule three decades later.
(Additional reporting by Krisztina Fenyo; Editing by Michael Roddy)