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Hungary: The Center-right Wins Parliamentary Ballot

By George Schopflin

Budapest, 25 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The centrist and right-wing parties yesterday won the parliamentary ballot in Hungary, defeating a left-wing coalition of the post-communist Hungarian Socialist Party and the liberal Free Democrats.

The outgoing coalition was punished for a number of overlapping but primarily economic reasons. It had come to power on the promise of professionalism and moderation, as well as greater economic sophistication, but behaved with a degree of arrogance and corruption that could hardly have endeared it to the voters. Furthermore, the economic transformation process has had its losers, many of whom are likely to support a change of the government.

The new coalition is currently being formed, but its outlines appear clear. The Young Democrats (FIDESZ), have gained more than 41 percent of the vote in alliance with the remnants of the Hungarian Democratic Forum, the dominant party in the 1990-1994 government.

FIDESZ will negotiate with the Smallholders, the agrarian radicals, to form a government. Together they will command about 54 percent of the seats in parliament. The preconditions of such a coalition were established during the second round of the vote, when both FIDESZ and the Smallholders withdrew candidates in favor of the other.

The new government will face a number of difficulties. The most important of these is precisely what its policy orientation is going to be. Without a clear answer to this, the centrists and the right-wingers run the danger of being captured by populist and nationalist right radicals. This danger is all the more serious because the Smallholders are prone to use right-radical rhetoric and the extreme right, the Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP) has also entered parliament.

Then, the new coalition faces the problem of inexperience in government. The running of a bureaucracy requires skills of organization and management, and knowledge of what can actually be expected of an administration and what cannot. Politicians have to learn that there is always a gap between a political decision and its execution. This often results from low administrative capacity rather than antagonism on the part of the bureaucracy.

The ability to maintain cohesion in the coalition and to overcome low administrative capacity is going to be central to the success or failure of the new government.

The pivotal challenge facing Hungary over the next four years is negotiation for accession to the European Union. This will demand both high levels of political will and state capacity. As far as the latter is concerned, Hungary will have to absorb the entire "acquis comunautaire," that is the existing legal regulations of the EU. This is estimated to be 35,000 pages in length currently and is growing. Legislative, administrative and judicial capacity will all be stretched to ensure successful implementation of the acquis, without which membership is impossible.

The political capacity of the Hungarian establishment is also likely to be stretched. Both left and right behave as if the other had no genuine right to power, as if the voters were mistaken in returning the other to power.

No party in a democracy enjoys losing power, but the loss of power should not lead to something like a major collapse. In the present context, the relatively inexperienced center-right government needs the toleration of the opposition or, at any rate, a recognition that it has genuine democratic credentials. The problem for Hungary is that without the support, even the critical support, of the opinion forming elites, the new government will certainly feel itself isolated in terms of its image. It will undoubtedly need a higher degree of backing than its predecessor received, both to sustain its self-legitimation and to enable it to continue the process of negotiating with the EU.

George Schopflin is Jean Monnet Professor of Political Science and Director of the Centre for the Study of Nationalism at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London