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Hungarian trade unions and civic groups protest against government's reforms

A series of strikes and protests was organized by several Hungarian trade unions and civic groups against the Socialist-led government's plans to privatize health insurance, cut retirement benefits and close some railway lines.

All train services in Budapest, the capital, were canceled Wednesday morning, as were numerous train and bus lines across the country. The rail strike lasted six hours before services began to return to normal.

Work stoppages were also held at some schools, electricity plants and Budapest's Ferihegy airport. Roadblocks meant to slow traffic on some highways also were announced.

The government said the strike had caused only minimal disruptions and that even most of the members of the different unions which supported the work stoppage showed up at work.

"Most people found out about the strike from the media, not from their own experiences," said government spokeswoman Bernadett Budai, adding that the biggest impact was felt in the railroad sector.

According to government estimates, 10,000 workers took part in the strike, including about 3,900 state railroad employees and 2,500 teachers.

Budai said the morning strikes had to be considered differently from the rally called by the unions that began on Kossuth Square outside parliament at 1600 GMT.

"The Kossuth Square events have more to do with party politics than with union issues," Budai said.

Fidesz, the largest center-right opposition party, called on its sympathizers Wednesday to join the union protest, which drew 5,000 people - far fewer than expected - according to state news wire MTI.

Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany and his government coalition have began introducing plans for major reforms in the health and pension sectors and already have shut down dozens of smaller railway lines they said served too few passengers to be profitable.

The planned switch from a state-administered health insurance system to private insurers has drawn the biggest opposition although final details of the plan are still being discussed in parliament.

Opponents, including the Hungarian Chamber of Doctors, say private health insurers, by seeking to make profits in the sector, would break with a long-standing tradition of "social solidarity" and would leave the poor and those already suffering from health problems without adequate coverage.

The plan has caused rifts between Gyurcsany's Socialists and their much smaller coalition partner, the Alliance of Free Democrats, which leads the Health Ministry and has advocated more radical changes.

Hungary is struggling with a large budget deficit, which at 9.2 percent of gross domestic product was the largest in the European Union last year. The 2007 deficit is planned at 6.4 percent of GDP.

Beside the economic and social challenges posed by the introduction of unpopular reforms, Gyurcsany also has had to deal with attacks on his credibility.

Last year, state radio broadcast a secret speech the prime minister gave to Socialist deputies in which he acknowledged lying repeatedly about the state of the economy to win the April 2006 elections.

While Gyurcsany also said in the speech that he was committed to major reforms to prevent the collapse of Hungary's economy, a series of anti-government protests - including some violent riots - have been held for more than a year.

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