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Will Hungarians Return Ex-Communists to Power?


IN elections scheduled here on Sunday, the reality of the current political and economic conditions may be at odds with appearances.

The parties of the conservative governing coalition, led by the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), lag far behind the Socialist Party in recent opinion polls. Though it seems the MDF is on its way out, few political analysts are willing to write them off completely right now. Ask government members, and they insist victory is within their grasp.

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``I believe the people will reconfirm the decision made four years ago,'' Minister of Justice Istvan Balsai said, referring to the MDF's 1990 electoral triumph. Meanwhile, Socialist Party leader Gyula Horn says the election has not been decided yet, ``but of course we are confident.''

Looking at Budapest, the Hungarian capital, there seems to be no reason for dissatisfaction with government policies. In the four plus years since the collapse of Communism, Budapest has attained a level of prosperity that approaches Western standards.

The current Cabinet and parliament, both MDF dominated, laid the legal framework that facilitated the nation's metamorphosis.

During rush-hour traffic, downtown streets are clogged with commuters, many driving foreign-made cars. At night, the embankments along the Danube River are bathed in neon advertisements for Japanese consumer goods and American soft drinks. Western fast-food joints abound and do brisk business.

It would seem Hungarians now have at their fingertips just about every consumer product that they would ever want. Most will say, however, that it's all out of the reach of their budgets. Hungary's rapid economic transformation has caused unemployment to rise to 12 percent, along with a 20 percent inflation rate and an industrial slump.

The vast majority of the population has less purchasing power today than under the Communists five years ago. Given such a situation, it cannot be considered a major surprise that polling data indicate that Hungarians are ready to follow the example of the Poles, who last fall voted to return reconstituted Communists to power.

The Socialists, successors to the Communist Party that governed Hungary for 40 years, enjoy the support of about 38 percent of the population, polls show. They are followed by the Free Democratic Alliance, a liberal party that has 14 percent support. The MDF is third with roughly 12 percent, followed by its coalition partners -

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the Property Holders Party and the Christian Democrats - with just under 10 percent each.

The Hungarian Socialists, like their counterparts in Poland, have evolved into a socially oriented pro-market party. Though they are expected to garner the most votes Sunday, that fact won't automatically translate into Cabinet posts for them in the next government. They are not projected to win an outright parliamentary majority and thus will have to find a coalition partner. That may prove difficult as the most likely partner, the Free Democrats, has broad political differences with the Socialists.

Few observers expect any definitive answers on the composition of the next government and predict a second round of voting, which would be held on May 29. Only a tiny number of candidates are likely to capture enough votes Sunday to avoid a runoff.

In between elections, back-room negotiations could create new coalition possibilities. Minister for International Economic Relations Bela Kadar, for example, predicted that the current governing coalition would expand to freeze the Socialists out of power.

``I feel there is a high probability that this government will remain, while bringing in some new political parties,'' Mr. Kadar told the Monitor.

Several factors could possibly turn Kadar's vision into reality, observers say. For one, the complicated procedures for apportioning parliamentary seats may mean that the MDF can retain greater influence than their vote total would warrant. In the 1990 elections, for instance, the MDF gained just 25 percent of the vote but won 165 seats in the 386-member parliament. The Free Democrats meanwhile took 21 percent of the vote but ended up with 94 seats.

The MDF's strength, then as now, is its organizational strength in the countryside, analysts say. In a runoff, that could bolster their election chances.

Another factor, some analysts say, is the government's ability to control state radio and television.

The government is facing accusations that it is manipulating the coverage of Hungary's two state-run television channels to cast political opponents in an unfavorable light. ``TV [coverage] is completely one-sided ... Political programs are used by the government to attack its enemies,'' said Istvan Zalai, deputy editor-in-chief of the daily Nepszabadsag.

Government members, including Justice Minister Balsai, vehemently deny manipulating the media.

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