Observers expect Socialists to win Hungary elections

New middle-class voters fear end of market reforms

April 21, 2002|By David Holley | David Holley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BUDAPEST, Hungary - Elementary school teacher Iren Potharn thinks that the old Communist system had some good points and that a Socialist victory in elections today could bring back egalitarian values and give poor people a better deal.

But Imre Csonka, the manager of a Mazda dealership, says the beleaguered center-right government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban deserves credit for nurturing the emergence of a middle class. Many of the newly prosperous voters are afraid of losing everything they've gained if the former Communists of the Hungarian Socialist Party come back to power, he said.

As Hungary goes to the polls for a second and decisive round of parliamentary voting, society is broadly divided. Yet the policy differences between the two leading parties are nowhere near as sharp as the contrast in their supporters.

Those who suffered under the Soviet-imposed dictatorship or are young enough to have adapted to the insecurities, competition and opportunities of capitalism generally support Orban's Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Party. The Socialists draw votes from those who once benefited from ties to the Communist Party or at least believed the system wasn't so bad.

But most agree that a return to the past is impossible. In Hungary, there is nearly a consensus in favor of democracy and market economics.

After the Communists agreed in late 1989 to give up their political monopoly, reformers controlling the party dropped "Workers" from its name and pledged support for democracy and a free-market economy.

Those reform-minded Socialists held power from 1994 to 1998, carrying out widespread privatization of industry, running an economic austerity program to put government finances in order, and laying the groundwork for Hungary to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Those actions gave them pro-market credentials, even if people such as Csonka, 39, still don't trust them.

A Socialist victory today, which most analysts predict, would continue a pattern seen in post-Communist countries of Eastern Europe in which voters usually throw out governing parties, regardless of ideology, the first chance they get.

David Holley is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing Newspaper.

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