Hopeful signs from the heart of Europe

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Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire, doom-mongers in the West have warned of the dark political forces that lurk just beneath the surface of the newly democratic states.

The latest such predictions applied to Hungary, which held the first round of parliamentary elections on Sunday. The fear was that the far right would advance to the point where it qualified for seats in the legislature, and perhaps even a part in a coalition government.

In the event, the voters of Hungary, like the voters of most of the new or restored European democracies, displayed eminent good sense. They turned out in record numbers, and delivered the far-right Justice and Life Party (MIEP) only 4.47 per cent. Not only was this support considerably less than forecast, but it left the MIEP below the 5 per cent threshold needed to qualify for seats in parliament. This makes it impossible for the current Prime Minister, the centre-right Viktor Orban, to bring the far right into government.

While the far right did worse than expected, the Socialists did much better, on pledges to narrow the glaring wealth gap that has opened up in the past 10 years. Barring surprises in the second round, the Socialists will probably form the next government in coalition with the liberal Free Democrats. To some, this could appear a retrograde step, as just such a centre-left coalition held power between 1994 and 1998.

Mr Orban was hoping to be the first leader of a new democracy to win re-election – an achievement regarded by some as a welcome sign of stability. The increasingly nationalist tone of Mr Orban's rhetoric, however, boded ill for Hungary's entry into the EU and threatened to frighten investors.

The exclusion of the far right means that, whether the centre-right or the Socialists win the second round, the next government will be a coalition that is centrist in complexion. There are issues, such as farming subsidies, immigration and jobs, that are threatening the popularity of governments in aspiring EU member-states and could yet delay their entry. The voters of Hungary have shown that their country is not in that camp.