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Hungary: Outcome Uncertain In Parliamentary Runoff

Prague, 22 May 1998 (RFE/RL) - Hungarians go to the polls this Sunday to cast votes in the second round of parliamentary elections. The outcome is uncertain.

The main protagonists are the Socialists led by the incumbent Prime Minister Gyula Horn and the Federation of Young Democrats-Hungarian Civic Party (FIDESZ-MPP) headed by youthful Viktor Orban. One of these men is almost certain to form the future government.

In the first round two weeks ago the Socialists came up on top with over 32 percent of the votes but failed to gain a wide enough gap from FIDESZ-MPP, which came a close (28.19 percent) second.

According to preliminary indications the Socialists candidates are currently ahead of those of FIDESZ-MPP in many electoral contests where candidates are elected in single member districts (that is to say, the candidate receiving most votes, represents the whole constituency, provided that he has received an absolute majority in the first round or a simple majority in the runoff.). The Socialists have 113 candidates in the single constituency runoffs, whereas FIDESZ-MPP has 41.

Apart from the single member districts, the 386-seat parliament is also elected on county and on national lists, where mandates are distributed according to the proportional system.

The national lists emerge from the votes that were not sufficient to add up to a mandate in the county lists. What this means in practice is that alliances or agreements to withdraw in favor of the best placed candidate in single constituencies or withdrawing from the county lists in the second runoff may radically change the picture produced by the first running. It also means that parties which have failed to reach the 5 percent electoral hurdle in the first runoff might still find themselves represented in the legislature after the second ballot. For example, analysts believe that the Hungarian Democratic Forum, the ruling party till 1994 that has failed to pass the threshold but has forged an alliance with FIDESZ-MPP, might make it to parliament after all.

Should this prediction materialize, the chances of FIDESZ-MPP to form the next government would increase, particularly if the Christian Democratic Alliance also manages to gain representation. In a debate held two days ago with Gyula Horn, Orban stressed that these two parties, and not the Independent Smallholders' Party (FKGP), are his prospective allies.

The FKGP's performance in the first round was rather good. This party, headed by Joszef Torgyan, won 13.7 percent, doing considerably better than it did in 1994, when it had received in the first round only 8.8 percent. But though claiming to be a "historic party" with roots in Hungarian pre-war history, the FKGP has recently adopted populist postures that are worrying Western investors.

The fact that FIDESZ-MPP allied itself in a number of instances with the FKGP -- for example in attempting to impose a referendum forbidding foreign ownership of land -- may be one of the reasons why the Budapest bourse, reflecting the worry of investors from Hungary and abroad over the economic policies likely to be pursued after the elections, dropped sharply after the first round.

In the debate with Horn Orban stopped short of committing himself to a coalition with the FKGP and made efforts to soothe the worries over FIDESZ's economic policies. He said that his party intended to do "nothing more" than implement what the Socialists have been promising before the 1994 elections, but "do it better." That would mean, among other things, diverting more resources to cover the social costs of the reform. Horn was quick to respond that this would mean a return to inflationist policies and the danger of losing the country's good standing with foreign investors.

Indeed, Horn, the "leftist," was taking positions generally associated with the center-right while Orban, the "rightist," appeared to be to the left of Horn. This might somewhat undermine the commonly-held perception that the results of the first round amounted to a Rightist victory.

Such a perception could be, however, justified by the clear rise in the strength of the xenophobic, anti-Semitic and extremist Party of Justice and Life (MIEP) led by writer Istvan Csurka. Its presence in the next parliament is certain, the MIEP having already secured 5.5 percent of the vote. That this vote does not necessarily represent an identification of its electorate with MIEP's policies, being above all a protest vote, is little comfort. On the other hand, it could also be argued that Hungary has only now entered "post-communist normalcy," for such parties have long existed elsewhere in the former communist countries where they were (Romania) or are (Slovakia) forming part of ruling coalitions or maintained representation in parliaments (Czech Republic).

The real loser in the first round were the Free Democrats, allied in the outgoing government with the Socialists. They dropped from 19.7 to 7.8 percent. Part of the reason for this may be that Gabor Kuncze, the Free Democrat's leader and minister of interior in the cabinet headed by Horn, has been blamed for the continued atmosphere of deteriorating public safety. Bombs have been placed at party headquarters, the owner of a large Budapest daily has been shot in plain daylight, and mafia-like explosions in restaurants have become relatively frequent not only in Budapest, but also in other towns. The apparent electoral beneficiaries of such incidents are the MIEP and the populist-nationalist FKGP.

Could all this be clarified in the second round of the ballot? Analysts say that the possible outcome could open the way to a "grand coalition" between the Socialists and FIDESZ. But Orban yesterday ruled out any such speculation. And so, uncertainty still prevails.