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Lesson for Hungary In Austria's EU Vote

By Eric Bourne / June 23, 1994



VIENNA

AUSTRIA'S resounding majority in favor of joining the European Union will doubtless spur a pro-European vote in the three Nordic countries that are conducting similar referendums later this year.

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Even more significantly, Austria's pro-Europe vote should also set an example to East European governments of how a stable, middle-of-the-road government may be achieved: Austrians who voted 2 to 1 on June 12 for joining Europe opted also for the kind of consensus government the East Europeans most need.

Above all, consensus-style government would help them more-smoothly and more-quickly turn former one-party states into democratic ones. At present, most of their parliaments are fragmented by many small parties and old ideological divisions.

Consensus politics has kept this small country at the heart of Europe more politically tranquil and economically viable than most other European states, big or small, for the past 40 years.

At the start, Austria's system was not free from absurdities. A much-abused system of proporz (balance) ensured that nearly all public jobs had to be shared between the two major parties - the Social Democratic Party and the People's Party, which have governed Austria virtually since the last war.

But steadily, a more sophisticated balance evolved on a national social scale, now a social pact exists between industrial employers and labor: This seems to have found a response in Hungary's election results on May 28, which may bring about a coalition government between the ex-Communists and the liberal Free Democrats.

In Poland, multiparty elections have produced five prime ministers in fewer years after the collapse of Communist rule in 1989. Last September, a score of parties - most no more than small factions - fought the polls. The coalition cobbled together by the two parties topping the list, the ex-Communists and Agrarians, have had a bumpy passage since and face an uncertain future.

The Czech Republic is the only exception thus far to this kind of uncertainty. A center-right government - headed by an uncompromising monetarist conservative - has managed, with consistent popular approval, to look more and more stable the further the transition reforms go.

At the other end of the scale, more-or-less permanent political crisis prevails, as in Bulgaria and Romania where nationalism still precludes common-sense consensus.

Hungary now looks different. Voters, it seemed, wanted an end to right-left bickering. The ex-Communists won a majority, but are less concerned with power than with sharing responsibility in a different economic situation. The Free Democrats can exert a braking influence if need be. Such a coalition could conceivably match the popular mood with a degree of stability and cohesion that the former center-right administration lacked.

Hungarians traditionally have looked to Vienna rather than Prague which, given their link within the Austro-Hungarian empire, is not surprising. Budapest has the same robust Social Democrat tradition as Vienna. It survived the first postwar years until the Communist coup in 1949. Later, veteran Social Democrats - schooled in Vienna's university and radical circles - were among the principal authors of reform in the late 1960s and of the subsequent reopening of multiparty democracy.

Austria increasingly became an attractive model, not only for Hungarians more free to do their shopping in Vienna, but also for the liberal and moderate politicians who seemed to have more regard for those at the bottom of the new social scale than was evident in the previous pursuit of ``shock therapy'' reforms.

Both the Socialists and the Free Democrats in Hungary are committed to economic reform and democracy. The former government was not mindful enough of the uneven economic pressures on society and of resentment caused by reform to manipulate the media to its own political ends. Avoidance of these pitfalls might encourage the West to help by opening its markets to trade from Hungary and from East Europe in general.