Hungary Swings Left As Socialists Lead In National Vote

FOLLOWING the examples of Poland and Lithuania, the pendulum of political power in Hungary has swung away from the incumbent government back to the former rulers, who want to soften the impact of the nation's economic transition.

In Sunday's elections, the Socialists, successors to the Communist Party that ruled for 40 years, received the most votes with 33 percent, election commission totals showed. Next came the Free Democratic Alliance, a liberal party that advocates deregulation, with 20 percent. About 70 percent of eligible voters voted.

The parties of the governing coalition saw a significant drop in support compared with 1990's vote. The dominant coalition partner, the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), gained 12 percent, while its coalition partners, the Property Holders Party and the Christian Democrats, gained 8 percent and 7 percent respectively.

For the MDF, the popular rebuke was a disappointment, but not necessarily a surprise. For the Socialists, the election results represent a vindication of sorts against what party leaders term a dirty campaign waged against them by the government. During the election campaign, MDF officials warned of a return to Communism if the Socialists came to power.

``These are libels and lies,'' Socialist Party chief Gyula Horn said last week. The Socialists insist they are not the Communists of old, but are more like social democrats according to the Western European model. As for the economy, the Socialists say immediate steps must be taken to stabilize inflation and reduce unemployment. According to the party program, the Socialists also want to introduce extensive reform of the welfare system. ``We wish to augment basic social rights and extend the number of people concerned,'' the program says.

In foreign affairs, Socialist leaders say they are committed to gaining European Union membership for Hungary and attracting foreign investment. As for NATO membership, however, they seem in less of a hurry to integrate with the alliance. Mr. Horn said the nation lacked ``consensus'' on the issue and promised a national referendum on NATO membership.

Though the Socialists now appear in a commanding position, cobbling together a governing coalition could be a complicated process. A new cabinet likely will not take shape until after a second round of elections is held May 29.

The Socialists' most likely coalition option will be the Free Democrats. It is unclear presently how hard a bargain the Free Democrats will drive in coalition talks. There is sure to be haggling over cabinet posts, including that of prime minister, observers close to the Free Democrats say. The Free Democrats program is similar to that of the Socialists in a few areas, particularly in the call for a more-open governing style. But when it comes to economics, the Free Democrats advocate a hands-off approach that differs significantly from the Socialists.

``The state should provide a framework, while allowing for complete freedom for everything that moves within the established boundaries,'' Free Democrat leader Gabor Kuncze told the Monitor.

The return of reconstituted Communists as a political force mirrors election results in Lithuania in 1992 and in Poland in September 1993. In both cases, the Socialists have made no attempt to reintroduce communist-style political or economic control. But at the same time, they have not been any more successful than their predecessors in solving their country's problems as they transform their economy.

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