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Hungary: Center-Left Opposition Clinches Narrow Victory In Second Round Of Elections

  • Eugen Tomiuc

Hungary's opposition Socialists and their liberal allies won a narrow victory yesterday in the second round of general elections, defeating incumbent Prime Minister Viktor Orban's center-right alliance. Preliminary results show the center-left Socialist Party (MSZP) and the Free Democrats (SZDSZ) together won 51 percent of the vote, while Orban's FIDESZ-led alliance garnered 49 percent. Socialist Peter Medgyessy -- a former finance minister and banker -- will form the next government, which is expected to lead Hungary into the European Union in 2004.

Prague, 22 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Hungary's center-left opposition narrowly defeated Prime Minister Viktor Orban's center-right alliance in yesterday's second round of legislative elections. With some 99 percent of the vote counted, the ex-communist Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and their traditional allies, the liberal Free Democrats (SZDSZ), won 198 seats in the 386-seat parliament.

Peter Medgyessy, the Socialist candidate for prime minister, last night spoke to his supporters after learning about his party's victory. The 59-year-old Medgyessy, a mild-mannered former finance minister and banker, said his government will work to narrow the gap between rich and poor and toward continued integration into the European Union.

"What is essential is that the Hungarian electorate entrusted the next government with implementing the common platform of the Hungarian Socialist Party and the Liberal Democrat Alliance, which will make the turn toward prosperity for all citizens and toward Hungary's European integration," Medgyessy said.

Outgoing Prime Minister Viktor Orban's conservative center-right Federation of Young Democrats (FIDESZ) and their allies in the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) won 188 seats in a tightly disputed second round, which saw a record 73 percent voter turnout.

Orban, talking to his supporters last night, conceded defeat. "A majority of the Hungarian voters, a small majority, indeed, but still, a majority, has decided that in the future the Socialists assume the task of governing," Orban said.

Medgyessy last night vowed to "reunite the country" after a bitterly fought campaign and to mend divisions in Hungarian society. He said he wants to be prime minister of all 10 million Hungarians, and not, as he put it, "two times 5 million."

During the campaign, both FIDESZ and the Socialists had more or less similar positions on main policy issues, promising to continue to work toward EU membership while lowering taxes, increasing wages and creating more jobs.

In addition, the Socialists vowed to reduce the gap between rich and poor, ensure the independence of judges and safeguard press freedoms. Orban, in turn, insisted more on protecting national business interests and supporting ethnic Hungarian minorities abroad.

In the first round on 7 April, the Socialists scored a surprise victory, taking 93 seats, while the FIDESZ-led alliance -- which had been seen as the favorites -- took only 87 seats.

But in the runup to the second round, Orban launched an all-out campaign to reverse the trend, organizing a huge rally in Budapest -- reportedly attended by half a million people -- and campaigning hard in rural areas to win the farmers' vote.

FIDESZ insisted that the MSZP was the direct heir of the former communists and accused them of being enthralled by what it called "big capital" from abroad. Its strategy yesterday helped FIDESZ regain some of the lost ground, but not enough to remain in power.

Orban's four-year term was successful, but apparently not successful enough to convince voters to re-elect his government. Hungary maintained steady economic growth, which placed it among the front-runners for EU accession in 2004, while also becoming a NATO member in 1999. But analysts say it was the Socialists -- who first governed between 1994 and 1998 in alliance with the SZDSZ liberals -- who achieved the economic fundamentals.

British journalist Kester Eddy, a Budapest-based correspondent for London's "Financial Times," told RFE/RL that yesterday's result amounts to a severe failure for FIDESZ.

"They had four years in government. They inherited a growing economy, in spite of what the FIDESZ people say, that the economy started growing in 1998 -- that's simply not true. And in a sense, if you step back and look at it, they actually lost quite severely. A country with an economy growing 4 to 5 percent over four or five years, and the government losing the election. Really, in a sense, they've obviously done something wrong," Eddy said.

Commentators say it was increasingly nationalist rhetoric that may have cost FIDESZ the election.

Orban, who is only 38 years old, has lately provoked a rift in ties with Hungary's neighbors, chiefly by pushing ahead with the so-called Status Law -- a measure granting economic and social benefits to some 3.5 million ethnic Hungarians living abroad.

The law, which came into force in January, has considerably strained Hungary's relations with Romania and Slovakia and prompted critics to accuse Orban of exploiting nationalist sentiments.

Romania and Slovakia host Europe's two largest Hungarian minority populations, with 1.7 million and 600,000 ethnic Hungarians, respectively.

Both the Romanian and Slovak governments declined to comment on the outcome of the Hungarian elections. Analysts, however, say the Socialists' victory is likely to alleviate fears of growing tensions between Hungary and its neighbors. Both the Socialists and the Free Democrats have pledged to mend ties with neighboring governments.

But British journalist Eddy warns that Orban will remain a formidable opposition force, who could exert pressure on the government when it comes to dealing with ethnic Hungarian minorities abroad.

"The Socialists will surely have a more toned-down and less strident approach to the whole ethnic-Hungarians-across-the-borders [issue]. Now, at the same time, Orban is going to be very strong [in parliament]," Eddy said.

Indeed, the new parliament will not be able to amend the Status Law -- which would need the approval of at least two-thirds of the deputies -- without the support of FIDESZ.

However, diplomats and analysts alike point to the fact that the most important gain of the Hungarian elections remains the ouster from parliament of the far-right Party of Justice and Life (MIEP) -- proof that Hungarian democracy has matured over the past four years.

MIEP, an anti-Semitic, anti-EU, and anti-NATO party led by maverick playwright Istvan Csurka, had hoped to hold the balance of power and even scrape into government with FIDESZ. But after the first round, it failed to garner the 5 percent of the vote necessary to enter parliament.

A disappointed Csurka today had to settle for less than he expected, and hailed French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen's strong performance in France's first round of presidential elections -- instead of his own.

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