March 13, 2007 / 1:03 PM / in 12 years

PREVIEW-Hungary government seen safe as new protest looms

By David Chance

BUDAPEST, March 13 (Reuters) - Hungary’s opposition will try to put tens of thousands of people onto the streets of Budapest on Thursday, hoping a renewal of last year’s protests on the national holiday will force the government out of power.

The opposition is demanding that Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany quit and the Socialist-led government abandon its tax rises and budget cuts, about which Gyurcsany admitted on a leaked tape he had lied to win last year’s election.

March 15, the date chosen for the mass rally, was a traditional day of protest under communism.

"The current path was not chosen by the Hungarian people," Viktor Orban, leader of the main right of centre opposition Fidesz party, told a news conference on Monday in which he was at pains to avoid any encouragement of violence.

Orban’s failure to topple the government through last year’s protests has produced discontent in his party and a low turnout on Thursday could harm his position more than the government.

While police are preparing for a repeat of last year’s violent protests, which lasted almost two months and in which 800 police and demonstrators were injured, the government believes it has isolated the hard-core demonstrators.

But parliament remains barricaded, a sign, the opposition says, of the communist-era antecedents of the Socialists, and posters evoking resistance after the country’s failed 1956 uprising, saying "We will be back again in March" have appeared.

Despite the harsh tax rises implemented by the government, aimed at cutting the budget deficit of 10 percent of gross domestic product, the biggest in the European Union, support for the government appears to have stabilised.

The Socialists have polled 22-26 percent in recent surveys and Gyurcsany recently won the party presidency with 90 percent of the vote.

Markets too have given a vote of confidence, with the forint rising 10 percent against the euro in the past six months.

"The government and the prime minister have announced clearly they intend to remain in office," said Ervin Csizmadia, head of political think-tank Meltanyossag Kor.

The main political risk from Thursday could be for Orban as there have been rumblings of discontent over the former prime minister’s inability to capitalise on the government’s woes and his two successive election losses.

Fidesz’s poll ratings remain stuck in the mid-30 percent range and the number of people saying they will not vote or are undecided has risen to more than 40 percent.

"Orban is trying to remove from the media the crisis within Fidesz, the personal conflicts, the signs pointing to the weakening of his personal position of power," said Krisztian Szabados, analyst at think-tank Political Capital.

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