BUDAPEST, Hungary – Protesters clashed with police and stormed the headquarters of Hungarian state television early Tuesday in an explosion of anger over a leaked recording of the prime minister admitting his government had "lied morning, evening and night" about the economy.
Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany said the overnight riots were "the longest and darkest night" for the country since the end of communism in 1989. About 150 people were injured, including 102 police officers, one of whom suffered serious head injuries, officials said.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Gyurcsany defiantly refused to resign as protesters have demanded — vowing to carry out an economic overhaul that will nurse the economy back to health.
"I'm staying and I'm doing my job. I'm extremely committed to fulfilling my program, fiscal adjustments and reforms," Gyurcsany told the AP. "I know it's very difficult for the people, but it's the only direction for Hungary."
Gyurcsany condemned the "vandalism" of 2,000 to 3,000 protesters who fought police and invaded Hungarian television headquarters, but said he had complete confidence in the police's ability to restore order.
The outpouring of rage may be linked to austerity measures Gyurcsany's Socialist-led coalition has implemented in order to rein in a state budget deficit expected to surpass 10 percent of gross domestic product this year — the largest in the European Union.
The government has raised taxes and announced plans to lay off scores of state employees, and introduce direct fees in the health sector and tuition for most university students.
Until the scandal suddenly broke this weekend, the 45-year-old Gyurcsany had been the Socialist Party's golden boy — a youthful, charismatic leader promising to lead his nation to the prosperity as a full EU member.
His coalition with the Alliance of Free Democrats in April became the first Hungarian government to win re-election since the return to democracy in 1990.
The violence came after a mainly peaceful protest outside parliament attended by several thousand people began late Sunday, when a recording made in May was leaked to local media in which Gyurcsany admitted to repeatedly having lied to the country about the true state of the Hungarian economy to win April's elections.
Gyurcsany's comments — made to the Socialists' group of parliamentary deputies — were full of crude remarks and called into doubt the abilities of some of Hungary's most respected economic experts.
"We screwed up. Not a little, a lot," Gyurcsany was heard saying. "No European country has done something as boneheaded as we have. ... I almost died when for a year and a half we had to pretend we were governing. Instead, we lied morning, evening and night."
He said the economy had been kept afloat through "divine providence, the abundance of cash in the world economy and hundreds of tricks."
By Monday night, the crowd demanding Gyurcsany's resignation outside parliament grew as it was joined by people getting off work and coming to the capital from surrounding areas.
Late Monday, several hundred protesters broke away from the larger group outside parliament and marched over to the nearby headquarters of state television, wanting to be allowed to proclaim their demands on a live broadcast.
While most of the crowd watched from a safe distance, a few dozen protesters tried to break through police lines and into the TV headquarters, but police drove them back with water cannons and tear gas.
Police also tried to disperse the larger protest with water cannon fire but the truck was quickly disabled by the rioters, some of whom escorted the police officers operating the vehicle to safety. Several cars near the TV building were set on fire, their flames scorching the building and damaging furniture inside.
Rioters also vandalized a large obelisk commemorating Soviet soldiers who were killed driving Nazi forces from Hungary at the end of World War II. Some of the protesters chanted nationalist slogans and waved flags with the red and white "Arpad stripes," a centuries-old Hungarian symbol named for the founder of the country's first royal dynasty.
The origin of the leak remains murky — and some have speculated that it may even have come from Gyurcsany's own office, although the prime minister denies that.
Confronted with initial excerpts of the 25-minute recording which Hungarian state radio put up on its Web site Sunday afternoon, Gyurcsany not only acknowledged their authenticity but seemed relieved they had been made public — fueling the rumors that he was involved in the leak.
Analysts say the prime minister may have hoped that the scandal would work in his favor — exposing the full extent of the nation's economic problems and casting him in the role of the country's savior.
"In the long term, I think Gyurcsany's words will have a stabilizing, cathartic effect, both politically and economically," said political commentator Laszlo Seres. "At least to his own voters, Gyurcsany can argue that he shouldn't be punished for his sincerity — that he said these things to stop the lies."
But for now, Gyurcsany is the object of the nation's scorn.
Several thousand police reinforcements were called to the capital from across the country. Police succeeded in retaking the TV building and driving out protesters only after 3 a.m. (0100 GMT), more than five hours after the incidents started.
The policeman with head injuries was described on state television as being in satisfactory condition after undergoing an operation to remove a bone splinter from his skull.
Police were controlling access to the area around the TV building on Tuesday morning, which also includes the National Bank of Hungary and the U.S. Embassy.
Justice Minister Jozsef Petretei, who also oversees the police force, submitted his resignation because of the outbreak of violence, but his offer was rejected by Gyurcsany.
On Monday, members of Gyurcsany's Socialist party in parliament voted unanimously in support of the prime minister. The government called for an emergency session of the National Security Cabinet for Tuesday morning.
In Brussels, Hungary's European Union Commissioner Laszlo Kovacs said the unrest in Budapest put the "stability and future of the country" at risk.