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Hungary’s Socialists elect PM candidate to manage crisis

Budapest — Hungary’s ruling Socialists formally nominated Economy Minister Gordon Bajnai as the country’s next premier Sunday, as thousands of right-wing protesters rallied for early elections.

Bajnai won the endorsement with 93 percent of the votes at a weekend Socialist congress, a party spokesman said.

At a separate party congress, the national committee of the liberal Free Democrats’ Alliance, the Socialists’ former coalition partner, also decided by a two-thirds majority to support the nomination of Bajnai Sunday evening.

The 188-member Socialist parliamentary group is now expected to hand in a no-confidence motion to parliament against Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany.

Together with the Liberals, the Socialists have a majority to pass the motion in the 386-seat parliament during a vote set for April 14.

That will allow the two parties — lagging in opinion polls as Hungary’s recession deepens — to avoid holding early elections.

Bajnai, who is not a Socialist party member, takes the prime minister’s job for one year until the next general elections in early 2010.

"My goal is that in 2010, you and I, the members of the crisis management coalition, can say that Hungary remained standing and managed the crisis well," the 41-year-old economist said at the congress in Budapest.

"I am putting it in the simplest and most ruthless way: the Hungarian people have the choice of losing their jobs or temporarily giving up several percentages of their wages," Bajnai said.

So long as the parliamentary majority was prepared for crisis management, "a crisis managing government is better for Hungary (than early elections)", he added.

Meanwhile a more than 50-thousand-strong, mainly right-wing crowd, demonstrated in the capital for early elections. By 7:00 pm (1700 GMT) a group of 1,500-2,000 people and members of extreme right paramilitary group Hungarian Guard marched in front of the parliament but later left the scene.

Bajnai’s list of belt-tightening measures includes a two-year wage freeze for civil servants and abolishing 13th-month wages for the public sector, scrapping various welfare and family subsidies and raising the retirement age.

They aim to keep Hungary’s public deficit within European Union limits and fulfill the conditions of a 20-billion-euro (27-billion-dollar) financial bailout from the International Monetary Fund, the EU and the World Bank, Bajnai said.

A precondition of his candidacy, Bajnai earlier asked all Socialist and Liberal lawmakers to endorse the reforms, which must be passed by parliament.

Hungary has been one of the countries hardest hit by the global economic crisis and Gyurcsany resigned on March 21 after he was unable to push his own belt-tightening measures through parliament.

Bajnai eventually emerged as his likely successor after a week of bickering with the Liberals.

The weekend congress also elected 63-year-old Ildiko Lendvai, former leader of the Socialist parliamentary group, as party chairwoman to replace outgoing chair Gyurcsany.

Lendvai is the first woman to head the Socialist party.