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Hungarians Vote Overwhelmingly to Join European Union - 2003-04-13

Hungarians have voted overwhelmingly to join the European Union in a nation-wide referendum Saturday. Eighty-four percent of voters said "yes" to EU membership, but voter turn-out was less than the forecast of over 60 percent.

Fireworks and a light show backed by European Union (EU) music illuminated the night sky over Budapest soon after election officials announced that eight out of ten Hungarians participating in Saturday's referendum voted in favor of EU membership.

It was seen as a political victory for Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy, an ex-Communist official who embraced the market economy soon after his former Soviet satellite state started to democratise 13 years ago.

The "yes" vote came after a state sponsored pro-EU campaign that included a round the clock with telephone campaign.

But several far right groups campaigned against joining the organization during rallies that were often marked by anti Semitic and nationalistic rhetoric. Right wing parties also warned that EU membership could harm Hungarian producers and farmers because of increased competition and stricter regulations.

But their call does not appeal to many people like 54-year-old Hungarian language teacher and writer Erzsebet Tiszai.

Ms. Tiszai voted for EU membership which, she said, will lead to a free market and more choice for Hungarian consumers after decades of Communism.

"I don't want anybody to tell me what I buy (or) where I buy," she said. "We had it for forty years. We could not find good shoes. We couldn't find a good dress. We could just buy the second hand things, although I am a good teacher. So it's enough."

Despite differences of opinion on the streets of Budapest about the economic impact, most people seem to agree that EU membership will mean Hungary's re-entry into Europe after a turbulent millennium that included long periods of occupation by Turks, two world wars, and Soviet domination.

Speaking along the spectacular bank of the Danube river, Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy told a crowd that his country had finally overcome a period of suffering.

He said that Hungary was like a ship that finally arrived "in the harbor of the European Union" after a difficult journey. Mr. Medgyessy added that the outcome of the referendum has given him more confidence to sign the historic EU Accession treaty in Athens next week.

Polling stations stayed open slightly longer than initially planned Saturday after Orthodox Jews warned they would otherwise be unable to vote as the referendum took place on their Sabbath.

Hungary was the third EU candidate country to hold a referendum among 10 nations invited to join the EU in May 2004. Voters in Malta and Slovenia have already approved membership.

However, EU officials have cautioned Hungarians not to expect immediate an increase in wages, that now hover around $400 a month for blue collar workers. But the Government says it expects EU membership to further boost the economy and confidence among foreign investors. The authorities also hope a bright future for the economy will speed up their efforts to join the Euro zone and replace Hungary's currency, the forint.