'This small country will be at peace at last,' said Gyula Horn, the leader of the Hungarian Socialist Party, the legal successor of the old Communist party. A former foreign minister who helped dismantle Hungarian Communism in 1989, Mr Horn is strongly placed to become the next prime minister.
With a 68.9 per cent turn-out in Sunday's elections for the 386-seat parliament, the Socialists were well ahead with 33 per cent of the vote. The liberal Alliance of Free Democrats was second with 19.7 per cent, and the main centre-right government party, the Hungarian Democratic Forum (HDF), was third with 11.7 per cent. A second round of voting will be held on 29 May to determine most seats. But out of 176 seats allocated to individual candidates rather than national party lists, the Socialists have won two and are ahead on 160 others.
'I must say we expected to do better. We must prepare to be a constructive opposition,' said the HDF Prime Minister, Peter Boross.
A breakdown of the results showed a decisive swing from right to left compared to Hungary's first post-Communist elections in 1990. The total HDF vote fell from 1.21 million to 632,000 while the Socialist vote rose from 535,000 to 1.78 million.
As in Poland last September, the chief factor behind the Socalists' success was the public perception that the nation's first post-Communist rulers had inflicted too much economic hardship in the pursuit of market reform. Unemployment in Hungary stands at 12.2 per cent, and the country's economic output has contracted by 20 per cent since 1990.
However, other factors make Hungary's experience different from that of Poland. In Hungary, the Socialists were able to play on the fact that they had governed in a relatively mild fashion in the 1970s and 1980s, introducing limited economic reforms and ultimately helping to turn the country into a parliamentary democracy.
Voters chose to ignore the fact that the former Communists had also run up an enormous foreign debt and were largely responsible for the economic mess that the HDF-led government tried to clear up. Voters prefered the Socialists' promises of economic growth and improved welfare provisions to the reality that, whatever the next government's ideological outlook, the road ahead will still be hard.
In one sense, the HDF inflicted defeat on itself, since its bitter internal quarrels and disputes with its coalition partners contrasted with the image of cohesion and professionalism projected by the Socialists. It is likely that once the former Communists take office the electorate will see they are just as capable of feuding among themselves as their opponents.
The lesson of the election is that the mainstream former Communist left has returned to respectability. Elections next September in Slovakia may produce the same result, leaving the Czech Republic as the only former Communist country in Eastern Europe where the anti-Communist right remains in power.
Leading article, page 17
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