In second place was the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats (AFD), predicted to take between 19 and 20 per cent. Coming a distant third was the Hungarian Democratic Forum (HDF), the main government party, which was forecast to end up with only 10 to 11 per cent.
The result reflected voters' dissatisfaction with four years of economic hardship under the HDF-led government. It confirmed a leftward trend in public opinion in former Communist countries where the transition to a market economy has brought much progress but also inflation, unemployment and falling living standards. Voters returned former Communists to power in Lithuania in 1992 and in Poland last September.
Turn-out was estimated at about two-thirds of Hungary's more than 8 million eligible voters. A second round of voting for the 386-seat parliament will take place on 29 May, and the exit polls suggested that the Socialists were well-placed to emerge as the largest party in the legislature.
It was a personal triumph for the Socialist leader, Gyula Horn, who suffered a damaged neck vertebra and a broken wrist in a car crash last Thursday. He was the foreign minister in Hungary's last Communist government and may now become prime minister despite strong personal attacks on his character during the campaign by the HDF.
The HDF, though it is resigned to the fact that four years of industrial recession and rising unemployment would produce a heavy anti-government vote, was still hoping to perform strongly in the countryside where its party cells are relatively well-organised. Peter Boross, the HDF prime minister, portrayed Hungary's economic hardships as a necessary consequence of overcoming the legacy of Communist mismanagement.
But the HDF's spell in office has been marked by frequent internal party fights, arguments with its coalition partners, allegations that it has exerted excessive control over the media, and a timid approach to economic reform. Inaugurated as a dissident political movement in 1988, the Forum went through a period of upheaval in 1992 when one of its original leaders, the writer Istvan Csurka, published an essay widely viewed as anti-Semitic. He was expelled from the party.
In the last four years, HDF members of parliament have abandoned the party as they watched it sink ever lower in opinion polls. Until recently, the main beneficiary was not the Socialist party but the AFD, the liberal party that came second in the 1990 elections.
The AFD leader, Ivan Peto, hinted last year that his party might co-operate in a future government with the former Communists, but party officials played down this prospect during the election campaign. The party's candidate for prime minister is Gabor Kuncze, the pragmatic leader of its parliamentary group.
Hungary's electoral system, a mixture of voting for national party lists and individual candidates, means that no party is likely to win a majority. Much will depend on the second round in three weeks.
The main parties all agree on the goal of integration into Europe's economic and military stuctures and on co-operation with the United States. However, the Socialists want a referendum on Nato membership and would not join the alliance unless other former Warsaw Pact countries did so.Reuse content