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Hungary next in line for the pink revolution

THE PINK waves of reformed communism are surging up the Danube and lapping at the doors of Hungary's parliament. Today's elections for the 386- seat assembly look certain to produce victory for the Hungarian Socialist Party, the legal successor to the Communist Party that ruled the country from the late 1940s until 1990.

If poll forecasts prove accurate, the result will demonstrate that in many ways Europe is just as politically divided as it was before the 1989 revolutions in the east. In Western Europe there are centre-right or right-wing governments in Britain, France, Germany and Italy. In Eastern Europe, however, the pendulum has swung to former communists in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Poland, while in such countries as Romania and Bulgaria the communist legacy remains strong.

For sure, conditions in Hungary, the most liberal communist state in the 1970s and 1980s, differ greatly from those in the Balkans or the former Soviet Union. A working democracy has been in place in Hungary for four years now, and if the left wins the elections, no one expects the transfer of power to be anything but peaceful.

But the same question emerges in Hungary as it did in Poland last September, when the former communists swept away the government that had presided over the transition to a free market democracy. Why are the politicians who symbolise the nation's attainment of freedom so unpopular that the voters seem likely to throw them out?

In Poland's case, political analysts attributed the left's victory to the radical 'shock therapy' market reforms of the post- communist governments that held office from 1989 to 1993. The switch to capitalism, it was argued, had been too extreme, producing too much unemployment and social hardship in the name of a brighter future.

But in Hungary's case, the economic reforms introduced since 1990 have been more cautious and measured. There has been little 'shock therapy' in Budapest, and the economy was in any case partly decentralised under communism. However, the results in Hungary have been similar to those in Poland.

Unemployment stands at 12.2 per cent of the workforce; it was about 15 per cent in Poland last September. Inflation runs at 17 per cent; it was more than 30 per cent at the time of the Polish elections.

In both Poland and Hungary, there is a bloc of discontented state employees, pensioners and jobless people who are receptive to the former communists' message of social benefits and painless reform.

The lesson seems to be that whether you pursue Thatcherite policies, as in Poland, or take a more moderate road, as in Hungary, there will still be a price to pay.

The irony is that the Hungarian Socialists, who according to the polls will take between 31 and 38 per cent of the votes, are unlikely to alter economic policy very much if they take power. The party's economic expert, Laszlo Bekesi, tipped to be finance minister, is a model of fiscal rectitude. Polls show that the Socialists are popular not just with Hungarians who have lost out in the switch to a market economy, but also with the new business elite.

These entrepreneurs are known as the 'red bourgeoisie', because they wielded political influence in the communist era and succeeded in translating this into economic power when Hungary began dismantling state controls over businesses. 'Voters see the Socialists as the aristocrats,' said a former dissident, Gaspar Miklos Tamas.

The Socialist Party has 35,000 members, but not many are blue-collar workers. A large number are professionals, middle managers and skilled workers. The party benefits from tight discipline and a well-organised provincial network that recalls its communist origins.

Hungary's electoral system is so complex that the Socialists will probably fail to win an overall majority, even after the second round of voting on 29 May. Its most likely partners are centrist and liberal parties.

However, no party is especially enthusiastic about jumping into bed with the Socialists, given the whiff of a tainted past. 'Where the Socialist Party comes from, we know,' said a political scientist, Andras Bozoki. 'However, the voters do not know where it is going.'