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By Matyas Szabo
If one accepts as true the opposition FIDESZ party's campaign slogan that "those who stay away from the ballot on 13 June tacitly support the current governing coalition," then the ruling Socialist Party should be rather satisfied with the outcome of the European Parliament elections in Hungary. Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy invoked similar logic when he argued after the first official results were announced that turnout of less than 40 percent demonstrates that Socialist supporters were not motivated to go to the polls, as they were by and large satisfied with the government's achievements during its first two years in office.
Those who did cast their votes elected 24 candidates to promote Hungary's interests in Brussels and Strasbourg: 12 are members of FIDESZ or its electoral partners; nine come from the ruling Socialists (MSZP). The junior coalition Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) will have two seats in the European Parliament, while the junior opposition Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) won one seat. Four smaller extraparliamentary parties, including the extreme-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party and the left-wing Workers Party, did not manage to reach the 5 percent electoral threshold to send representatives to the European Parliament.
Leaders of the four successful parties all welcomed the results of the elections. FIDESZ Chairman and former Prime Minister Viktor Orban told his party's supporters that FIDESZ "has won many times, but never had such a great victory." FIDESZ alone received more votes than the two parties of the governing coalition combined, Orban said, adding that 400,000 more voters supported FIDESZ than the Socialists. He expressed his satisfaction that one of Hungary's designated members of the European Parliament (MEPs) is a representative of the Lungo Drom Romany organization, FIDESZ' electoral partner.
In a joint news conference with Medgyessy, MSZP Chairman Laszlo Kovacs said the Hungarian government received a stronger vote of confidence than other governing parties in the EU. "We accept the results of the elections, will not demand a recount of votes, and we will not bring our supporters into the streets," Kovacs said, alluding to FIDESZ's actions after the 2002 parliamentary elections. "The winner [of the European Parliament elections] is Hungary," Kovacs concluded.
"A non-European campaign with European results," Medgyessy said at the beginning of his summary of the elections. "The time for racing is over; now is the time for cooperation," he urged politicians, pledging that his government will continue its domestic reforms through the end of the current electoral term in 2006. A great achievement of the elections was that the country refused to accept a two-party democracy, Medgyessy insisted.
According to many political analysts, the great winners in these latest elections are the two smaller parliamentary parties. Both the ruling coalition SZDSZ and the opposition Democratic Forum have shown a strong desire in recent months -- particularly in the run-up to the European elections -- to portray themselves as independent political entities that are capable of contradicting and criticizing their "big brothers," the Socialists and the FIDESZ, respectively. SZDSZ Chairman Gabor Kuncze welcomed the outcome of the vote as a "liberal breakthrough," saying it proves that liberal values should be more strongly represented within the government for the remainder of its term. Kuncze noted that the SZDSZ managed to increase its support by more than 2 percentage points since the 2002 parliamentary elections despite the fact that "European parliamentary elections are generally about protest-votes against current governments."
For her part, Democratic Forum Chairwoman Ibolya David said that by winning a seat in Brussels, her party has earned the chance to become "a key political player in Hungarian domestic politics and a compass for European conservative politics."
Once the initial reactions were behind them, leading politicians from the two ruling and two opposition parties that won seats in the European Parliament agreed on 14 June that their parties should cooperate to best promote Hungary's national interests in the European Union. In an early morning program on Hungarian state television, FIDESZ Deputy Chairman Pal Schmitt, said FIDESZ will fight to represent the interests of the 15 million-member Hungarian nation, seemingly suggesting that his party will lobby for the benefit of ethnic Hungarians abroad.
Most analysts agree that, all in all, the 13 June elections brought no unexpected results in Hungary. The questions that all parties and politicians are trying to answer concern how much the results will affect domestic politics, and to what extent might the outcome hint at the results of the next parliamentary elections in Hungary. Are the results a mere "public-opinion poll" on the status of voter preference in today's Hungary, as SZDSZ Chairman Gabor Kuncze suggested on the evening of 13 June?
Some argue that the outcome signals defeat for the ruling Socialists rather than victory for the opposition FIDESZ, and that the Socialists will have to draw serious conclusions from the results that might trigger personnel changes in the party's senior leadership. In light of the results, the junior coalition SZDSZ might also attempt to gain increased power within the government and push through a more liberal program, including a reduction in personal income-tax rates.
The relatively low voter turnout of 38.5 percent -- which is still higher than the average figure among new EU member states -- makes it hard to draw grand conclusions regarding party preferences at the halfway point of the governing Socialist-Free Democrat coalition's term. FIDESZ certainly managed to better mobilize its conservative supporters than the Socialists did theirs, and therefore succeeded in winning in all counties as well as in the country's capital, gathering 47.40 percent of the total vote compared to 34.31 percent gained by its major political rivals, the Socialists. However, as EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen noted a few days ago in Prague that low turnouts might favor "unusual" candidates and produce "strange results."
So the question in the wake of the European balloting in Hungary seems to be: Which will receive the bigger surprise in the 2006 Hungarian parliamentary elections, the opposition or the governing coalition?