April 16, 2011 / 3:46 PM / 8 years ago

Hungary police and army unions protest over austerity

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Around 10,000 Hungarian police, firefighters, soldiers and customs officers protested on Saturday against the centre-right government’s austerity measures at a union rally in Budapest

Firefighters attend a protest against the government's austerity measures in Budapest April 16, 2011. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

Hungary’s Fidesz government, which swept to power in 2010 with a two-thirds parliamentary majority, launched a package of fiscal reforms last month to keep the budget deficit in check.

The measures include cutting the eligibility period for unemployment benefits, tightening disability pension rules, and abolishing early retirement to cut spending and keep the deficit below the 3 percent of GDP ceiling of the European Union.

The trade unions of police, the army, firefighters, customs offices and law enforcement joined forces in a demonstration in front of the parliament building, demanding that the government keep current pension rules in place.

They also want a wage rise to compensate for years of frozen wages and preserving the pensions of retired officers.

“It’s time for us to turn into rocks, because everything has been taken from us ... it’s only our early retirement and honour that we still have and we won’t let this be taken,” Kornel Arok, head of the Firefighters’ Independent Trade Union (HTFSZ) told a cheering and booing crowd.

The protesters marched to parliament and some opened fire hydrants and used smoke bombs and sirens along the way.

They carried a coffin and banners saying “We want EU wages, not austerity” and “Death path 2011.”

The unions said they would continue the protests until there was an agreement with the government on their demands.

The union protest came a day after thousands of civilians demonstrated in Budapest against the ruling Fidesz party’s move to rewrite the country’s constitution, which critics say will weaken democratic checks and balances.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has introduced a flat 16 percent personal income tax this year and promised to create hundreds of thousands of jobs in coming years to put the economy back on a path of sustainable growth.

But the government must reduce Hungary’s high public debt in order to maintain investors’ confidence, and the painful pension changes will affect hundreds of thousands of people.

“I took my oath as a police officer here (in this square) 30 years ago and I never thought I would have to come back here again,” said a former policeman who asked not to be named.

“We are determined, we don’t have any other choice,” said Attila Acs, a retired firefighter. “What is the government doing with those people whom it needs badly every single day ... those who risk their lives day by day.”

According to the latest opinion polls support for Fidesz has declined considerably but still remains well ahead of the opposition Socialists, far-right Jobbik, and liberal LMP.

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