Hungarians strike, protest against economic reforms

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BUDAPEST, Nov 21 (Reuters) Thousands of anti-government protesters rallied outside Hungary's parliament today after 10,000 workers staged strikes to try to halt Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany's economic reforms.

Led by a six-hour stoppage from the powerful railway union, strikers blocked roads, halted trains and two bus lines, closed Budapest's airport and shut some schools. But parallel protests were smaller than expected and the government did not budge.

The strikes and demonstrations were backed by the main opposition Fidesz party, whose leader Viktor Orban said earlier this week that the ruling coalition, led by Gyurcsany's Socialists, could be forced out in six to nine months.

''I hate Gyurcsany. The more of us turn up, the stronger the hope is that there will be some change,'' Andras Mezei, 65, told Reuters outside parliament.

Unlike in France and Germany where unions have real muscle, Hungarian workers are unlikely to seriously challenge economic reforms, although Socialist deputies who have seen their party's poll ratings fall to as low as 15 percent have voiced worry.

The rail workers protested against rural line closures at state rail firm MAV, which loses hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and smaller unions aimed to halt health and pension reforms. But only two of the six main union groupings took part.

''The unions remain divided along political lines and their confidence rating within the society is relatively low,'' said Attila Gyulai, an analyst at consultancy Political Capital.

News agency MTI estimated the Budapest protest drew 5,000 people, versus up to 50,000 projected earlier by media. The government said that showed the strikes lacked support.

PM TO PUSH AHEAD Weeks of protests against Gyurcsany last year attracted backing from mainstream political parties although protests led by far-right groups in October this year fizzled out.

Gyurcsany, on a tour of the Baltics, told Estonian television he was not worried by his low poll ratings and pledged to push ahead with health and education reforms as well as changes to the state's bureaucracy.

''Of course opinion polls are very important, but the fate of the state is much more important,'' Gyurcsany said.

Gyurcsany has won plaudits from markets and the European Union for his measures to rein in the budget deficit, which hit 9.2 per cent of gross domestic product in 2006, the highest in the EU, and will fall to just 3.2 per cent in 2009.

But tax and price hikes made to consolidate the budget and Gyurcsany's admission in a leaked tape that he lied in the 2006 election campaign about the poor state of public finances have alienated many in the country of 10 million people.

Political analysts said that Gyurcsany had little choice but the stay the course and hope the reforms bear fruit if he is to stand any chance of being re-elected in 2010.

''The government's measures had very negative impacts but reversing its policy can be equally risky,'' said Gyulai.

REUTERS TB BST0058

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