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Hungary set for first poll since joining EU

The election is shaping up to be a battle between the young, charismatic leaders of the two main parties

india Updated: Apr 04, 2006 10:00 IST

Hungarians head to the polls on Sunday in the first general election since the country joined the European Union in 2004, with the governing Socialists expected to edge out the main conservative Fidesz party, according to the latest polls.

All 386 seats in parliament will be up for grabs in the April 9 election, which will be followed by a second round run-off two weeks later, on April 23.

The election is shaping up to be a battle between the young, charismatic leaders of the two main parties, Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany and Fidesz leader and former premier Viktor Orban.

If Gyurcsany wins, it would mark the first time since the country's transition from communism to democracy in 1989 that a governing party won re-election.

Orban, who was prime minister from 1998 to 2002, is meanwhile looking to become the first premier to win a second term.

But with the Socialists and Fidesz in a virtual tie according to the polls -- the small percentage point lead of the Socialists in most surveys is within the margins of error -- the two smaller parties in parliament may well decide the election.

Support for the liberal Free Democrats, the junior coalition partner of the Socialists, is around five percent according to polls.

The smaller conservative party, the Hungarian Democratic Forum, which was a coalition partner in the previous Fidesz government from 1998 to 2002, meanwhile is polling at around three per cent.

A party needs at least five per cent support in order to be elected to parliament.

Much of the election campaign has been dominated by the clash of economic ideology, with Socialists pushing free-market policies in contrast to Fidesz's protectionist measures to rein in what Orban calls "ruthless capitalism."

"The policy of the Socialists is not to shield Hungary from competition but to have Hungary give it a go and win, we want a triumphant Hungary," Gyurcsany told a campaign rally in the eastern city of Eger on March 23.

Orban, meanwhile, urges strengthening the states role in the economy, giving preferential treatment to local companies over multinational firms in an effort to preserve and create jobs.

"We either choose Hungarian solidarity or indifferent ruthless capitalism," Orban said in an interview to "Work, Home, Family," a Fidesz campaign pamphlet mailed out to voters ahead of election day.

While both main parties speak of ideology, the country's high deficit, currently at 6.1 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), may require a more down-to-earth approach.

Both parties agree on the need to rein in spending and undertake major economic reforms, but so far the Socialists and Fidesz have pledged billions of euros in the campaign, promising tax cuts, subsidized energy prices and higher pensions.

Analysts predict that a lack of political will to consolidate the budget could delay the adoption of the euro, currently planned for 2010, by at least three years.

Economic questions aside, no election in Hungary has been so personality focused, with both Gyurcsany and Orban admired or despised but few voters left indifferent to their charisma.

The 44-year-old Gyurcsany, who took the reins of power in September 2004 following the ouster of his predecessor Peter Medgyessy, is regarded as a saviour of the Socialists who managed to close a double-digit Fidesz lead in polls in less than two years.

Gyurcsany's "100-step programme," a combination of small steps aimed at modernising Hungary's economy in all areas from health to employment and taxes, dominated media for months and projected a can-do image of the premier.

But conservatives see him as an opportunistic politician who went from being a communist youth leader in the late 1980s to becoming a millionaire during the country's chaotic privatisation era.

The 42-year-old Orban, who gained national recognition in 1989 when as a young, liberal firebrand he called for free elections and the expulsion of Soviet troops from the country, branded Gyurcsany a neo-communist on Sunday.

Orban, who is a powerful orator and a good strategist, has undergone a political transformation of his own leaving his liberal days behind to become a conservative.

But his programme of national protectionism has spilled over into populism, say his critics, while the ultraconservative rhetoric of his party -- including talk of limiting individual liberties in order to make society more moral -- is seen as an attempt to roll back democratic gains.

Like Gyurcsany's fortune, Orban's wealth, accumulated during his political career, has been the target of a parliamentary investigation.