Populist premier set for defeat in Hungarian election

Stephen Castle
Monday 22 April 2002 00:00

Hungary's populist Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, was battling against the odds last night after the country's free-market and EU-friendly centre-left claimed victory in national elections.

Despite an energetic round of last-minute campaigning by Mr Orban, his Socialist Party rivals were poised to capitalise on their success in a first round of voting held two weeks ago.

Peter Medgyessy, the Socialist candidate, looked likely to team up with the liberal Free Democrats to recreate the coalition that governed for four years in the 1990s, and press home Hungary's ambitions to join the European Union.

With most of the votes counted the Socialists and their liberal Free Democrat allies were on course to win 198 seats in the 386-seat Parliament.

Mr Orban's Fidesz/ Democratic Forum alliance, rallying strongly from a stinging first round defeat, was seen as likely to take 188 seats.The projected result was a bruising defeat for 38-year-old Mr Orban, whose ambition was to become the first Hungarian leader to be re-elected since the collapse of Communism in 1989.

The new Prime Minister is likely to be remembered as the person who crowned Hungary's relative economic success by taking the country into the EU by 2004.

Mr Orban, an Oxford- educated churchgoer who has four children, has already overseen his country's accession into Nato. But his aggressive rhetoric has set alarm bells ringing in financial markets and caused consternation among European diplomats.

The Prime Minister has accused his rivals of being in the hands of international capitalists. He has also stoked nationalist tensions with some of Hungary's neighbours, courting the far right in the process.

Mr Orban's Fidesz party focused on the country's pensioners and rural poor, many of whom have been left behind in Hungary's booming economy, by pledging full employment and a 100 per cent increase in average wages within four years if his party was re-elected.

Skilful in cultivating a popular, football-playing image, his problem is a lack of potential allies with whom to construct a government. The far-right Justice and Life Party (MIEP) crashed to defeat in the first round although, paradoxically, the party's failure to qualify for the second round gave Mr Orban the chance to pick up votes from its supporters yesterday.

The sitting Prime Minister was not conceding defeat: in 1998, Fidesz lost the first round and went on to triumph. But political analysts calculated yesterday that he needed 200,000 new voters to turn the tables on the Socialists and to gain another four years in power.

Two weeks ago, Fidesz won 87 seats, while the Socialists won 94 and the Liberals four. The charismatic Mr Orban refused to make any predictions when he cast his ballot at a polling station in Budapest, saying that the result was "in the hands of God".

But a record turn-out indicated that both sides had mobilised reserve support. More than 71 per cent of the electorate voted on 7 April, a record since the collapse of Communism.

Mr Medgyessy, the Socialist would-be prime minister, smiled broadly, but made no comment as he voted at another Budapest polling station yesterday.

A less flamboyant figure than Mr Orban, he was a finance minister in the 1990s and a member of the Communist Party's central committee before 1989. He is seen as being more open to foreign investors than Mr Orban, who has adopted a nationalist tone.

Mr Orban rose to prominence in 1989 when he stood up during the reburial of the leader of the failed 1956 anti-Soviet uprising and demanded that the Soviet military withdraw from Hungary. His early political career was characterised by fiery anti-Communist rhetoric, long hair and denim jeans.

Later, as leader of Fidesz, he embarked upon rebrand-ing what had been a radical liberal party as a Christian conservative group, attempting to establish support among Hungary's new class of business entrepreneurs.

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