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Hungary: Opposition Socialists Ahead In First Round Of Voting, Far Right Out Of Parliament

Hungary's opposition Socialists yesterday won a tight victory over Prime Minister Viktor Orban's center-right coalition in the first round of parliamentary elections. The Socialists and their left-leaning liberal allies now appear well-positioned to topple Orban's coalition in the second round of voting on 21 April. The far-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP) failed to win the 5 percent of the vote required to gain access to parliament. MIEP's defeat has eased Western fears that the far right could gain power in a government coalition.

Prague, 8 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Hungary's opposition Socialist Party (MSZP) gained a narrow but important lead yesterday over Prime Minister Viktor Orban's ruling center-right coalition in the first round of parliamentary elections that also saw a far-right party failing to re-enter parliament.

According to unofficial final results, the center-left Socialists won 42.05 percent of the vote, while the governing alliance led by Orban's Federation of Young Democrats (FIDESZ) received 41.12 percent.

The liberal Free Democrats Alliance (SZDSZ) -- the Socialists' long-time allies who took some 5.5 percent of the vote -- were the only other party beside FIDESZ and MSZP to overcome the 5 percent threshold required to enter parliament.

After yesterday's first round, MSZP gained 93 mandates in the country's 386-seat parliament, with FIDESZ securing 86 seats. SZDSZ has so far obtained four mandates.

The far-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP) -- seen before the election as a possible FIDESZ ally -- failed to re-enter parliament, easing Western fears that MIEP might join a coalition government.

Some 71 percent of Hungary's 8 million eligible voters turned out at the polls, the highest number since the fall of communism.

Under Hungary's complex voting system, a combination of simple majority and proportional representation, some 200 seats -- or more than half of the total number -- will be decided after a second round of voting scheduled for 21 April.

The Socialists' surprise victory came despite earlier predictions of a FIDESZ success.

Peter Medgyessy, the Socialist candidate for prime minister, spoke to his supporters after learning about his party's first-round victory: "My respected friends, I bow before the voters' wisdom (loud cheers from the public), I bow before the voters' devotion and clear vision (louder cheers)."

Meanwhile, a visibly disappointed Orban said his coalition's surprise defeat needed to be "thoroughly analyzed" before FIDESZ outlines its strategy for the second round: "Dear friends, the time has come for us to analyze the results, to analyze what we have learned. That's what we need to do. We must accurately analyze the results and draw conclusions. After that, we must decide what we'll do in the next two weeks."

Orban went on to assure his supporters that a comeback was still possible in the second round. He noted that during elections in 1998, the Socialists had gained a 4 percent lead after the first round, but lost the election to FIDESZ in the second round.

Analysts say, however, that this time it will be very difficult for the FIDESZ-led alliance to stage a comeback in the second round.

Under Hungary's voting system, the second round will see a contest between first-round winners who could not secure 50 percent of the vote in their constituencies and their runners-up.

Socialist candidates are leading in 77 of the 133 constituencies to be disputed in the second round, while FIDESZ has the lead in the remaining 56. The rest of the mandates will be decided on a party list system which redistributes votes not used to win seats in the first round.

But it is the liberal SZDSZ -- who were the Socialists' allies in the 1994-98 government -- who will most likely decide the outcome of the second round.

SZDSZ candidates have come third in 103 constituencies. Analysts say that, with their support likely, the Socialists could even gain an overall majority in parliament.

Both FIDESZ and the opposition Socialists have more or less similar positions on main policy issues, promising to keep up work toward EU membership while lowering taxation, raising wages, and creating more jobs.

In addition, center-left MSZP has vowed to reduce the gap between rich and poor, increase the power of parliament and safeguard press freedom -- issues on which FIDESZ is accused of shortfalls.

Orban -- under whose government Hungary maintained a steady economic growth that placed it among the front-runners for EU accession in 2004 -- is promising, in turn, to protect national interests and support ethnic Hungarian minorities abroad.

But Orban has lately shown increasing nationalist tendencies, which caused tensions with Hungary's neighbors, mainly 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 strained Hungary's relations with Romania and Slovakia and prompted critics to accuse Orban of exploiting nationalist sentiment to win votes.

Romania and Slovakia host Europe's two largest Hungarian minority populations -- which were created when Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory after World War I -- with 1.7 million and 600,000 ethnic Hungarians, respectively.

Orban's intransigence in promoting the Status Law -- as well as his party's flirting with ultranationalist politician Istvan Csurka's far-right MIEP -- raised fears in Western circles and among neighbors of a possible postelection alliance between the two.

Kester Eddy, a Budapest-based correspondent for London's "Financial Times," says MIEP's re-accession to parliament could have damaged Hungary's EU bid and provoked a rift with neighboring countries.

"The nationalist rhetoric would, of course, even have potentially endangered EU accession, I'd have thought. You know, the kinds of words and language that [far-right MIEP leader] Mr. Csurka and others were using wouldn't make the average moderate Romanian or moderate Slovak feel particularly easy, I don't think!"

Eddy believes that, ironically, Orban's increasingly nationalist rhetoric may have had a doubly negative effect on his party's showing in the election.

On the one hand, says Eddy, it may have attracted some votes from MIEP itself, leaving the latter out of the parliament. And on the other hand, it convinced dissatisfied moderates from Orban's own coalition to split last year and form a new movement, the Centrum Party (CP).

The Centrum Party did not enter parliament -- taking just over 3 percent of the vote yesterday -- but Eddy says those lost votes may have cost FIDESZ the election. He says a Socialist victory in the second round would also help ethnic Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries.

"I would say [a moderate Socialist government] would have a fairly immediate effect in that -- however much they support or don't support [the Hungarian minorities abroad] -- they won't trumpet it as FIDESZ did. And that will mean that the majority populations [in neighboring countries] and the nationalist-leaning minorities within those majorities will not have the ammunition to stir up trouble saying, 'There go the Hungarians high-and-mighty, they want to revise the borders, etc."

Some commentators also point out that the SZDSZ liberals voted against the Status Law, while the Socialists themselves only voted for the law after initially opposing it. They say that amendments to the law may be possible if the Socialists win the second round on 21 April.