New-style Communists on course for poll victory: Sick of hard times under capitalism, voters are set to punish the rulingcentre-right coalition in May's election, writes Adrian Bridge in Budapest

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The Independent Online
Like many Hungarians, Edit Baranyai feels bitter, cheated, impoverished - and angry. Late last year, she was fired from the clerk's job she had held for 25 years in a textile factory, which went bankrupt. At about the same time, her 20-year-old son, a trained technician, was made redundant.

'It's all thanks to democracy,' says Mrs Baranyai, now struggling to earn a living by selling fruit from a street kiosk. 'For us ordinary people, life has got a lot worse over the past four years. We have become poorer and weaker. Some can no longer afford to eat so well, and nobody feels sure about the future.'

Away from the glitzy western- style shops in the centre of Budapest these views are common. While some Hungarians have profited under the new free market rules, many feel they have not. Among them are the unemployed (at 700,000 some 13 per cent of the workforce), the pensioners struggling on 8,000 forints (about pounds 54) a month and the hundreds of thousands of public sector workers, whose wages have failed to keep up with a 22 per cent inflation rate.

Together they form an army of the disenchanted. And they will be baying for blood when they go to the polls in May in the country's second genuinely democratic election since the end of Communist rule.

According to recent opinion polls, the target of their wrath will be the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), the dominant party in the centre-right coalition that was swept to power in Hungary's last general election in 1990.

Widely perceived to be arrogant and incompetent, the MDF is unlikely to get more than 15 per cent of the vote. It will be consigned to the opposition benches, or offered a junior role in a future coalition.

As in other parts of eastern Europe, the beneficiaries of the prevailing mood will probably be the reformed Communists - now called the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP). For the past six months, the MSZP, which claims that three million Hungarians now live on or below the poverty line, has been the campaign front-runner, with 25-30 per cent. The party leader, Gyula Horn, has become one of the country's most popular politicians

For a party that won 10.9 per cent in 1990 it is a remarkable comeback. Not surprisingly, there were plenty of smug faces at a recent party congress to launch the election manifesto.

Addressing the delegates, a rejuvenated Mr Horn described the last four years as a 'period of missed opportunities' and promised a 'new social compromise' would put the country back on its feet.

According to the manifesto, the main components of that compromise will be higher benefits to pensioners, the unemployed, parents and the young; more jobs; free textbooks for low-earning families; higher wages for health care workers and a tripling of the annual budget for environmental protection. For many Hungarians struggling to cope in the new economic order it was music to the ears. How it will be funded remains unclear.

Critics - some of whom are within the party - accuse the MSZP of blatant populism and of making promises that, even if only partially adhered to, would lead to a dramatic increase in the budget deficit.

The drive towards the free market would be halted, they charge, and the country would lurch back towards the command economy of the Communist past.

In what are still the MDP-controlled corridors of power in Budapest, there are protestations that there is now light at the end of the tunnel in growing productivity, declining unemployment and dipping inflation.

There are dark mutterings about the 'Lithuanian syndrome' and the 'Fall of Warsaw', referring to the success of the reformed Communists elsewhere in the former Communist bloc.

There have been concerted attempts to discredit Mr Horn, by focussing on his past as a member of a Communist militia unit involved in crushing the 1956 uprising.

The personalising of the contest has backfired. Instead of being seen as a stooge from the stable of Hungary's former Communist leader, Janos Kadar, Mr Horn is widely remembered as the foreign minister who allowed East Germans wanting to flee to the West to cross Hungary's borders in 1989. He is seen as a leading member of the reformist Communist government from 1989- 90 that broke down the structures of the Kadar era, and successfully paved the way to the country's first democratic elections.

'We do not want to bring back the system that was pulled down with our help and which was rejected by the people,' counters Mr Horn. 'The road we are offering does not lead backwards.'

If, as seems likely, the Communists emerge as the largest single party after the election, it is far from certain they will form the next government. Unlike Lithuania and Poland, Hungary has a strong liberal alternative, confusingly split into two components, the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), and the Young Democrats (FIDESZ). Together they are likely to garner about 30 per cent of the vote. To complicate matters, the former would probably prefer an alliance with the Socialists, while the latter would rather team up with the MDF.

Finally, there is the 'national' question. Most Hungarians say the economy will be the key election issue. But some suggest the important fault line will run between opposing concepts of what it means to be Hungarian, and the policies Budapest should pursue with regard to large ethnic Hungarian minorities in neighbouring Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine.

Although none of the mainstream parties is pressing for a change of any borders, the MDF is clearly identified as the strongest champion of the nationalist cause.

(Photographs omitted)