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Hungary Elections Concern EU - 2002-04-05


Hungarians are set to vote Sunday in their country's fourth parliamentary elections since the collapse of Communism. Latest opinion polls suggest that for the first time following the democratic changes, a Hungarian prime minister may be re-elected into office. But the ballot is overshadowed by international concern over the far right in Hungary, at a time when the country wants to join the European Union.

"I am Peter Medgyessy, the prime minister candidate for the Hungarian Socialist Party," he says in a commercial aired on national television. Mr. Medgyessy argues that Hungary deserves better. "Vote for a change of the government program. Vote for the Socialists," the ad says.

But several opinion polls show that most voters are not convinced. They suggest that current Prime Minister Viktor Orban's center-right alliance will beat the main opposition Socialists, the heir of the once powerful Soviet-backed Communist Party.

However, surveys show it will be a very close race. That's why European Union diplomats fear that Mr. Orban will seek the support of far-right politicians to form a new government without the socialists. They are particularly worried about the Hungarian Justice and Life Party, or MIEP, which is known for its anti-Semitic and anti-foreigner views. Some officials of Mr. Orban's Fidesz Party say there will be no coalition with MIEP. But, pressed by reporters, the prime minister has refused to completely rule out such a coalition.

It is unclear if MIEP will receive the necessary five percent to be elected into the 386-seat Parliament. But, western diplomats and socialists point out that even without MIEP, there could be serious problems because Mr. Orban made compromises to get support from nationalists.

They point out that Mr. Orban has already upset Hungary's neighbors with legislation known as the Status Law, which gives preferential treatment including free education, work permits and medical benefits to ethnic Hungarians living outside the country. Leaders in Romania and Slovakia have accused Hungary of seeking re-unfication with the territories it lost after World War I and World War II, when it cooperated with Nazi Germany.

Speaking at an election rally with Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, Mr. Orban said that he regards the millions of ethnic Hungarians living outside his country's borders as Hungarian citizens.

"We always felt and knew that behind us, in front of us, next to us and with us there are millions of Hungarians," he says, "Maybe we did not meet in the last four years, but we received a lot of encouragement, love and support from you."

He has also made clear that neighboring Slovakia and the Czech Republic should not be allowed into the European Union, unless they repeal the 1945 Benes Decrees, which stripped ethnic Germans and Hungarians in those countries of property and citizenship.

The decree led to serious diplomatic tensions among the three former Communist EU candidate countries, which have been working together with Poland in a regional group known as Visegrad.

The developments in Hungary are closely monitored by security experts, who recently met in Budapest to discuss the global war against terrorism and the new challenges facing Europe and the world. Retired General Klaus Naumann, the former chairman of the NATO Military Committee, told VOA that he hopes Hungarians will move away from nationalism on April 7.

"I hope that Hungary will understand that Europe is about to enter a phase of increasing integration, and that nationalism cannot play a role in Europe, in tomorrow's Europe." Yet, most analysts believe that Hungary, a country of just over 10 million people, will be able to join the EU as early as 2004 along with nine other nations, whatever the outcome of Sunday's elections.

Under Hungary's complicated election system, voters will go to the polls twice, with many candidates facing a run off ballot during the second and final round of voting on April 21.

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