Russian nuclear plant divides Hungarians ahead of election

viktor_orban Hungarian flag.jpg

Hungary’s centre-left opposition is mobilising support against a deal between the government of Viktor Orbán and Russia to build two additional reactors in the country’s only nuclear central. Parliamentary elections are due on 6 April.

Many Hungarians have expressed anger at the government's decision to expand the nuclear power plant in the central city of Paks without consulting the people. Hungary's left-wing opposition parties are promising that if they win the elections they will hold a referendum on the deal by the Orbán government.

Last month, Orbán and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed that Russia would build two new reactors at Paks, and provide a 30-year loan of some €10 billion, covering 80% of the costs.

The Soviet-constructed plant now supplies around 40% of Hungary's electricity.

Politicians in a left-wing electoral coalition, including former prime ministers Ferenc Gyurcsány and Gordon Bajnai, said on Sunday at a rally that voters deserve more information about the deal and accused Orbán of selling out to Russia.

Many of the protestors said that they were not against nuclear energy, but that they were reluctant to become energy dependent on Russia.

However, the Parliament, where Orbán’s Fidesz party has a super-majority, approved the deal yesterday (3 February). Economy Minister Mihály Varga was quoted in the Hungarian press as saying that a financial agreement with Russia would be signed within a few weeks.

Varga added that the new reactors would fulfill the energy demands of the Hungarian economy and the public “in a cheap and competitive way”.

Pressed in parliament by the opposition to say why did he sign the “secret contract” without prior authorisation by MPs, Orbán said that there would be a renewed agreement between the government and opposition Socialists on the Paks plant when the dust had settled after the elections.

In view of the elections, left-wing forces in Hungary have built an alliance including Gyurcsány's Democratic Coalition, the Egyutt (Together) formation of Bajnai, and former lawmaker Gabor Fodor's new liberal party.

However recent opinion polls suggest Fidesz enjoys a comfortable lead over the individual alliance parties combined.

The ruling Fidesz government has recently announced a cut of gas prices by 6.5% from 1 April, less than a week before the elections. According to some experts, Russia may have agreed to reduce gas prices as part of the package including the two new reactors at Paks.

Hungarians voted overwhelmingly in April 2010 for a radical change of leadership, sending the ruling Socialists into opposition and giving the centre-right a qualified majority in parliament.

The election marked the biggest victory for any political party in a general election since the fall of communism 21 years earlier. However, several measures put in place by the new government have since fuelled controversy.

A controversial new constitution that entered into force on 1 January brought tens of thousands of protestors to the streets. They believe it undermines the independence of the central bank, the judiciary and the media. Critics also say that the new measures represent an assault on religious freedom by cutting down the number of recognised religious groups from 300 to 14.

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