Hungarians choose Sunday between the continuity of a center-left government, which says the country needs to embrace globalization, and a center-right opposition that is promoting a more protective economic policy. Hungary's first parliamentary election since it joined the European Union will also determine who will oversee the introduction of the euro as the nation's official currency.
It is not often that a news program and debate attracts six- of the eight-million increasingly skeptical Hungarian voters. But that is what happened this week as the Socialist prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, met his center-right, charismatic opponent, Viktor Orban, for a debate.
Surveys show that the ruling Hungarian Socialist Party and its smaller liberal ally (the Alliance of Free Democrats) have a slight lead over the main rightist Fidesz party, ahead of the two-round vote Sunday and April 23.
If the Socialists and their allies win, it will be the first time since the end of communism that a government has been elected for a second consecutive term.
Whoever wins is expected to oversee the country's efforts to introduce the euro currency by 2010. So far, Hungary has not met the euro-requirements, as it has the largest budget deficit within the European Union, which it joined two years ago.
Spending by the Socialists on social programs, pensions and state employees has been partly blamed for the problem.
But Prime Minister Gyurcsany, a 44-year-old self-made millionaire, has said his ex-Communists turned Socialists are now a new left grouping, which supports globalization.
Mr. Gyurcsany explained to television viewers his goals for tackling the budget crisis. "We would like to be constructive, and to create business opportunities for investors," he said. "This is the best way to create jobs."
Fidesz has campaigned against what it calls "wild capitalism."
Fidesz leader Viktor Orban threatens to renationalize key companies, such as the Budapest Airport, which was sold last year to the British Airports Authority for two-point-two-billion dollars. That worries foreign investors. The European Commission is also tackling what it sees as rising economic nationalism across the EU, including in Hungary.
During the television debate, Fidesz leader Orban, a 42-year-old former prime minister, said it was crucial to first of all support Hungarian businesses. "I don't think that Hungarian entrepreneurs would say 'no' to our program of decreasing their taxes, which we are planning for the next four years, and changing the level of the minimum wage," he said. "We also were successful in decreasing the unemployment when we were in government," adds Mr. Orban, who was prime minister between 1998 and 2002.
But on the streets of Budapest, people are not impressed with the rhetoric. Many say Hungarian politicians spend more time quarreling in parliament than dealing with the every day concerns of ordinary citizens.
Disappointment with politics is the main reason 42-year-old house painter Zoltan Surman says he will not vote Sunday. "I already stopped voting 16 years ago, after the collapse of communism," he says. "I am living on the streets already for eight years because of a divorce, and I don't think anything will change, whoever I vote for," he said.
Amid a close election race, both leading parties have pledged to increase welfare spending, while, at the same time, offering tax cuts worth billions-of-dollars.
This has alarmed economists, as Hungary must cut its budget deficit in half before it can join the countries using the euro currency.
Sunday is the first round of parliamentary voting, with a second round scheduled for April 23rd in districts where no party's candidate wins a majority.