Budapest, 17 November 1997 (RFE/RL) - NATO Secretary General Javier Solana today welcomed an overwhelming vote of support by Hungarians in favor of joining the North Atlantic military alliance. Hungarian newspapers today called Sunday's vote "convincing" after about 85 percent of voters said "yes" to membership. About half of eligible voters in the country participated.
In a statement, Solana said yesterday's referendum demonstrated broad support among the Hungarian people for NATO membership.
The Hungarian government -- which had strongly promoted NATO membership for the former Warsaw Pact country -- needed 2 million voters to say "yes." In fact, 3.3 million voters did so.
Voters interviewed at polling stations earlier in the day told an RFE/RL correspondent that they felt their country would be more secure inside NATO, especially with so much instability next door in Yugoslavia.
The government had also promised Hungarians that membership in NATO would make Hungary a more attractive magnet for foreign investment.
Front-page headlines of major dailies read "Sweeping majority for NATO" and "Hungarians vote for NATO." Papers stressed that the referendum ran smoothly and produced valid results.
Hungary's Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs is expected this week to present the country's official application for membership in Brussels. If all goes according to plan, the country could sign the accession documents as early as December 16.
At a news conference in Budapest last night, Hungarian Prime Minister Gyula Horn thanked his fellow citizens for giving his government an overwhelming endorsement for NATO membership.
Horn called the outcome "outstanding" and said it is "beyond all expectations."
"We have been dreaming of good results, but we have not dared dream of 85 percent of the citizens voting for NATO membership," he said.
Horn said the "yes" vote strengthens Hungary's international position and sends an important positive signal to the United States and all 15 other NATO members. The prime minister said it is an important message to the European Union that Hungary is ready for membership in that body, also.
Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland have been invited to join the alliance in its first wave of eastward expansion. Hungary is the only of the three countries that has held a referendum on the issue.