Socialists Take Early Lead in Hungary's Election Campaign

THE date for Hungary's second postcommunist general election has been set, and as in other former East bloc nations, the voters appear in no mood to return their current government to power.

The latest opinion polls show the ruling Hungarian Democratic Forum (HDF) of late Prime Minister Jozsef Antall and its coalition parties running far behind the country's three major opposition parties. Elections will be held May 8, President Arpad Goncz announced at a press conference Feb. 4.

``We're certainly seeing the last period of the HDF as the leading party in Hungary,'' says Istvan Stumpf, director of the Budapest School of Politics. ``The real question now is which parties will benefit.''

The Hungarian political scene has changed significantly since the 1990 elections, which ended four decades of Communist Party rule here. Not least was the death of Antall last December, whose conservative coalition government provided Hungary with almost four years of relative stability in a region marked by war, economic malaise, and political uncertainty.

Yet Antall's promised economic recovery has failed to emerge, and the government's popularity has fallen with the standard of living. Taking advantage of this decline are the ex-Communists and the two liberal opposition parties.

No single party appears to garner sufficient support to form a government, and Hungary is virtually assured of having some sort of weak coalition government. Political analysts expect either a coalition between a weakened HDF and the liberal parties, or between the liberals and the Socialist Party, which is the successor to Hungary's reform-minded Communist Party.

All the major parties support continued economic reform, privatization, and market openness, and would give priority to Hungary's continued integration with the European Union. But it is the Socialists who now lead the polls, and their possible return to power has some economists and business people concerned that a promised expansion of social welfare programs will place a greater burden on the already struggling and overtaxed private sector.

While the HDF has ruled out any cooperation with the Socialists, both liberal parties have indicated a willingness to work with them. ``The liberal parties will only enter into such an arrangement as senior partners,'' says political scientist Istvan Rev, academic director of Central European University in Budapest. ``The greatest danger for the country is if the Socialists win by a wide margin.... In that case, it may be extremely difficult to form a government.''

The loosely allied liberals will likely play the role of kingmaker after the election. On the political spectrum, both parties are left of the ruling coalition in areas of social, media, and constitutional policy, but well to the right in economics, believing that only a strong private business sector can ensure the success of Hungary's economic transition.

The Alliance of Free Democrats, led by former dissident intellectuals, has closer relations with the Socialists. ``There are more similarities than contradictions between our parties,'' says leading Socialist parliamentarian Laszlo Kovacs. ``It wouldn't be difficult to harmonize our programs.''

BUT the other main liberal party, the Alliance of Young Democrats or Fidesz, has been cultivating ties with the HDF. If these two parties are to cooperate, observers expect to see more flexibility from the government in the February legislative session. This could be particularly significant in the debate over how the state media are to be controlled, budgeted, and supervised. The HDF - and Prime Minister Peter Boross in particular - have been accused of acting undemocratically in effectively pulling the plug on the independent-minded Channel 2 newscast and several radio stations last year.

Fidesz's April 1993 party congress marked a turning point for the unconventional party, whose jean-clad, long-haired delegates would mingle with university students in Budapest coffee houses after parliament sessions. A 35-year age limit on party memberships was rescinded, and a strong centralized leadership structure was imposed. ``They've been moving to the right since,'' says Mr. Rev, ``trying to fill the growing vacuum left by the HDF.''

Extremist parties, such as Istvan Csurka's nationalist Hungarian Justice Party and the far-left Hungarian Socialist Workers Party, have performed badly in the polls and are not expected to gain parliamentary representations.

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