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Hungary's Divided Voters Seek 'Better Opportunities'

Politics: Support in the second round of the parliamentary election falls along class lines. Socialists are favored to win, analysts say.

April 21, 2002|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Elementary school teacher Iren Potharn believes that the old Communist system had some good points and that a Socialist victory in elections today could bring back egalitarian values and give poor people a better deal.

But Imre Csonka, the manager of a Mazda dealership, says the beleaguered center-right government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban deserves credit for nurturing the emergence of a middle class. Many of these newly prosperous voters are afraid of losing everything they've gained if the ex-Communists of the Hungarian Socialist Party come back to power, he said.

As Hungary goes to the polls for a second and decisive round of parliamentary voting, society is broadly divided. Ironically, the policy differences between the two leading parties are nowhere near as sharp as the contrast in their supporters.

Those who suffered under the Soviet-imposed dictatorship or are young enough to have adapted to the insecurities, competition and opportunities of capitalism generally support Orban's FiDeSz-Hungarian Civic Party. The Socialists draw votes from those who once benefited from ties to the Communist Party or at least believed that the system wasn't so bad.

But everyone agrees that a return to the past is impossible. Hungary, like neighbors Poland and the Czech Republic, has been completely transformed since the 1989-90 fall of communism. In all three countries, there is a consensus in favor of democracy and market economics.

"You don't have to imagine that former Communists are stupid people who can't change," said Judit Beer, 55, an official of a medical workers union, who was a Communist for nearly 20 years and now favors the Socialists. "Life changes, and you have to adapt. . . . The Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party [the old Communist Party] was against capitalism. But from the time it was founded, the Hungarian Socialist Party was never against capital."

After the Communists agreed in late 1989 to give up their political monopoly, reformers controlling the party dropped "Workers" from its name and pledged support for democracy and a free-market economy.

These reform-minded Socialists went on to hold power from 1994 to 1998, carrying out massive privatization, running an economic austerity program to put government finances in order, and laying the groundwork for Hungary to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. That gave them pro-market credentials, even if some people such as Csonka, 39, the Mazda dealer, still don't trust them.

Rise in Stocks Cited

When the Socialists came out ahead in first-round balloting April 7, prices rose sharply on the local stock exchange, which "shows that for capitalists, the Socialist party offers better opportunities," said Gobor Torok, a political scientist at the Budapest University of Economic Sciences and Public Administration.

The Socialists won 42% of votes in the first round, to 41% for the FiDeSz-led alliance. Of the 185 parliamentary seats decided in the first round from a total of 386, the Socialists won 93, their allies the Alliance of Free Democrats won four, and FiDeSz took 87. One more seat went to a candidate nominated by both the Socialists and the Free Democrats.

For the final round today, the Socialists and the Free Democrats have formed an alliance in which the two parties put up just one candidate in each district still up for grabs. Analysts say that virtually assures them control of parliament--and the right to name a prime minister--if voting percentages remain about the same.

Orban, speaking at a massive rally in Budapest, the capital, after his party's first-round setback, criticized the Socialists, declaring, "We cannot have a country where one party pretends to be socially sensitive but in reality disguises a government formed by big finance and big capital."

Although the Socialists reject that charge as campaign rhetoric, the fact that Orban would even make such a statement shows how great the post-Communist transformation has been. Those who believe that Orban's charge makes sense point out that many from the old Communist elite have benefited from the changes--and some have even become rich capitalists.

"At the change of system, these people were in good positions, and they could get ownership of the best companies and best factories during the privatization process," Torok said. "Regardless of that, the program of the Socialist party is a social democratic one. The basic difference is that FiDeSz would like to support the middle class and the Hungarian Socialist Party would like to support those who can't catch up."

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