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Hungary Parliament Election Focuses on EU Membership - 2002-04-07

Hungarians began voting Sunday in the first round of parliamentary elections which will decide who leads the former Communist country into the European Union. Opinion polls put the center-right alliance of Conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban slightly ahead of the opposition Socialists, but there is international concern that he may need the support of far-right politicians to remain in power.

Sunday's elections mark an important moment for 18-year old Hungarian Csaba Strasser. Standing in front of a polling station, the law student explains that he is voting for the first time in his life.

He says he cast his ballot for Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Federation of Young Democrats-Hungarian Civic Party, known as Fidesz.

But Mr. Strasser makes clear that in exchange for his vote he expects the Prime Minister's center-right alliance to fulfil his wish list, which includes Hungary's membership in the European Union.

"I hope we can join the European Union, and that is important, the most important thing," he said. "they can do better education and they have a very good health program and I hope they will be able to do it."

Mr. Strasser is not alone. Pre-election opinion polls show the parties supporting Mr. Orban in a slight lead over the main opposition Hungarian Socialist Party, whose prime ministerial candidate is 59-year-old Peter Medgyessy, a former finance minister.

Analysts say if the surveys are right, Mr. Orban could become the first prime minister to be re-elected since the collapse of Communism in 1989.

However some observers have expressed fear that to stay in power the 38-year old politician will have to cooperate with far right politicians, including representatives of the Hungarian Justice and Life Party or MIEP, which is known for its anti-semitic and anti-foreigners statements.

Western diplomats have warned Hungary that this could cast a shadow on its plans to join the EU by 2004.

However a 45-yearold Hungarian voter, who only identifies himself as Karoly, opposes EU membership for his country and says he hopes MIEP will be part of the next Government, because it does too.

Mr. Karoly says Hungary's biggest parties forced his country into the European Union. "The European Union is very similar to the Soviet Union because it can bring back the Iron Curtain," he said. He adds he believes that the organization will limit Hungary's freedom.

Politicians in Romania and Slovakia have accused Prime Minister Orban of reaching out to Hungarian nationalists, by introducing controversial legislation that gives millions of ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring states social benefits and temporary work permits.

After he cast his vote, Mr. Orban defended the so-called Status Law, saying it was one of his government's biggest achievements. However Mr. Medgyessy, his main opponent, has accused the prime minister of populism.

Under Hungary's complicated voting system, Sunday's first round of parliamentary elections is unlikely to produce a clear winner and a second, run-off ballot will be held on April 21.

Hungary's elections to fill seats in the 386-member parliament tend to favor larger parties. In all, eight parties are running national campaigns and more than 60 percent of Hungary's more than eight million eligible voters were expected to participate in Sunday's election.