Hungary rail strike ends, more protests expected

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BUDAPEST, Nov 21 (Reuters) Thousands of people will demonstrate outside Hungary's parliament today against economic reforms by Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany after the end of a six-hour rail strike which crippled the network.

Up to 50,000 demonstrators, backed by unions and the main opposition Fidesz party, will protest outside parliament at 2330 IST, Hungarian media said.

Police said they were expecting tens of thousands of people.

''We generally do not give prior estimates about the number of demonstrators expected at any event, however, we are prepared to handle a sizeable crowd, up to several tens of thousands of people,'' Budapest police spokeswoman Eva Tafferner said.

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.

Analysts said the protests may push the government into concessions but not into a major policy change.

''The government's measures had very negative impacts but reversing its policy can be equally risky,'' Attila Gyulai of Political Capital told Reuters.

Gyurcsany's measures to cut Hungary's budget deficit and reform the rigid state sector have divided the country of 10 million people and caused tensions between the government and various groups.

RAIL STRIKE Although the rail strike is over, the network will not be working fully until tomorrow.

The influential rail unions, whose strike affected 1,300 trains today, want to halt rural line closures by the state rail company MAV, which is losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

In talks with the unions yesterday the government promised rural lines would stay in the timetable next year. The unions said they saw no guarantee the lines would not be closed.

Other workers want to halt reforms to the state health insurance system. Hundreds of schools were closed and there was a brief strike at Budapest Airport, owned by Germany's Hochtief.

Bus drivers at two regional firms held strikes to protest against new pension rules and civic groups partially closed some main roads to support the strikers.

Gyurcsany's tax and price rises, as well as some cuts to the bloated state sector, have slashed the budget deficit from 9.2 per cent of gross domestic product in 2006 to 6.4 per cent this year and it is estimated it will fall to 3.2 per cent by 2009.

Gyurcsany, who has won the praise of markets and the European Union for slashing the budget deficit, is also facing a possible revolt among his Socialist MPs over reforms.

The Socialists have been panicked by a plunge in their popularity ratings to just 15 per cent and are embroiled in a row with their coalition partners over health reforms which aim to bring private money into the ailing system and to cut costs.

Only two of Hungary's six main trade union groupings took part in today's strikes and rallies although other groups expressed solidarity with the goals of those on strike.

''The unions are unlikely to rush into the large-scale (strike) action which we can see in France,'' said Gyulai. ''The unions remain divided along political lines and their confidence rating within the society is relatively low.'' Reuters RJ GC1927

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