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Socialists Win in Hungary Balloting

Voting: Alliance led by former Communists gains majority in parliamentary elections, and prime minister Orban concedes defeat.

April 22, 2002|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUDAPEST, Hungary — A center-left alliance led by ex-Communists won a majority of seats in Hungarian parliamentary elections Sunday, setting the stage for Peter Medgyessy, a former finance minister and banker, to become this country's next prime minister.

"So, we have won!" a jubilant Medgyessy declared to supporters at the headquarters of the Hungarian Socialist Party.

During a harsh and divisive campaign, Socialist supporters complained that they were often described by Prime Minister Viktor Orban and other leaders of his center-right FiDeSz-Hungarian Civic Party not as the opposition but as enemies.

Medgyessy, 59, pledged Sunday night that he will serve all citizens.

"My conviction is that after forming the government, we must unify the country," he said. "I repeat what I said several times: It's my intention to be the prime minister of 10 million Hungarians, not two times 5 million. There are 10 million important people in Hungary, regardless of whom they voted for."

Sunday's balloting was the second and final round of voting for 386 parliamentary seats. The Socialists and a small party allied with them, the Alliance of Free Democrats, won 198 seats, while a FiDeSz-led alliance took 188, the national electoral commission announced.

As leader of the largest single parliamentary bloc, Orban could still theoretically be asked by Hungarian President Ferenc Madl to try to form a government by wooing sufficient support from Free Democrats or breakaway Socialists to form a parliamentary majority.

But the Socialists and Free Democrats, who ruled in a coalition government from 1994 to 1998, have already formed a strong alliance, and it appeared virtually certain Sunday that Medgyessy will head the next government.

Some supporters of Orban expressed hope Sunday night that he could somehow remain prime minister, but he conceded defeat in a telephone call to Medgyessy and then in a speech to his backers.

A Socialist-led government is not expected to differ greatly in policy terms from the outgoing center-right coalition. During their rule, the Socialists and Free Democrats showed a strong commitment to a market economy. Joining the European Union in 2004 is sure to be a top goal for the new government, as it was for Orban's. The Socialists have also called for business-friendly tax cuts.

But many FiDeSz supporters deeply dislike the Socialists because they are led by former Communists.

"It disturbs my sense of justice that such a party comes to power," Daniel Szabo, 24, a university student attending a postelection FiDeSz rally, told an American reporter Sunday night. "They went against the 1956 [democratic] revolution and ran a dictatorship in Hungary. These are the same people. . . . You never had a dictatorship. You don't know what it's like for people to have their teeth kicked out."

Those now leading the Socialists "are not the same people as in 1956" when Hungarians rose up against Soviet-backed Communist rule, but "the idea is the same," Szabo said.

Such views are strenuously disputed by Socialist supporters, many of whom were turned off by the nationalist and religious tinges of Orban's campaign.

Gyorgy Partos, 60, a pensioner who was a Communist Party member for 25 years, said the Socialists have become a "social democratic" party like the British Labor Party or Germany's Social Democrats.

"This change didn't happen just in the past 10 years," Partos said. "It started much earlier in Hungary. The 1956 revolution was made by Communists. The executed Prime Minister Imre Nagy [who led the pro-democracy revolt] was also a Communist. Communist leaders initiated those economic changes from the 1960s, so Hungary could get away from the Soviet Union.

"When the whole Communist world collapsed economically," he added, "and the Soviet Union collapsed as well, that [reformist] trend succeeded, and it won again tonight in this election. . . . The stock market will go up tomorrow because the Socialists won."

Medgyessy served Hungary's Communist government as finance minister and deputy prime minister in the late 1980s, then was finance minister again from 1996 to 1998 under the Socialist-led government. During much of the 1990s, he worked as a banker.

Although he was a member of the Communist Party, which was officially called the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party, Medgyessy has never joined its successor, the Hungarian Socialist Party, but was chosen as its candidate for prime minister nonetheless.

In his concession speech, Orban emphasized the accomplishments of his government in a way that sounded like the opening volley of a campaign to retake power in elections four years from now. The outgoing government was especially popular among entrepreneurs, who found new opportunities in an expanding economy, and among young people enthusiastic about having in Orban a charismatic leader not tainted by association with the Communist past.

Orban thanked his youthful supporters and pledged that their efforts had not been wasted.

"We lost a battle, but our goals remain the same," he said. "I say to the young people who supported us . . . the situation is hard now, but time is on your side."

Laszlo Sebian-Petrovszki, 24, a political science student who voted for the Socialists, said he saw very few policy differences between the two sides.

"But the way they use power is different," he said. "I support the Socialists. They're not aggressive, and not maniacs for power."

Sebian-Petrovszki also recalled being alienated by FiDeSz's rhetoric during the campaign.

"They said we are the enemy--we are not another party, but the enemy. It's a fact that the Hungarian Socialist Party has former Communist Party members, and FiDeSz used that in its rhetoric against the Socialist Party."

But times have changed, he said: "That was a dictatorship. Now we have democracy."

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