- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 7, 2002

Hungarians go to the polls today to vote in the first round of the fourth free parliamentary election held since the Iron Curtain came down over a decade ago. The second round, which will be held among the top three contenders in each of the nation's legislative districts, will be held on April 21.
The contest pits incumbent Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his center-right coalition against Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) candidate Peter Medgyessy, 60, an economist and a former Communist apparatchik.
The stakes are high for both men and their parties. If Mr. Orban, who is only 38 years old, wins, he will be the first prime minister in a former communist-run East European nation to be elected to a second term, a mark of political stability and maturity in a country where democratic government is still very young.
For the Hungarian Socialist Party and its allies on the left, a victory would be a vindication of its defeat four years ago by Mr. Orban's Fidesz party (Hungarian Civic Party, pronounced Fee-dess) and its centrist and conservative supporters. Fidesz successfully branded the Socialists in the 1998 election cycle with the charge of being nothing more than an unreconstructed Communist Workers' Party and a holdover from Hungary's unhappy totalitarian past.
It has been a loud and often mean-spirited campaign. In February, Socialist delegates boycotted parliament for a while, angered at what they regarded as hateful name-calling by its legislative opponents. In early March, two leaders of the far-left Workers' Party went on a hunger strike, angered that Hungary's election law allows only parties that earn 5 percent or more of the vote to hold seats in the national legislature.
Both major coalitions have hurled charges of corruption in the direction of the other. The Socialists, for example, hammer repeatedly that the center-right coalition is using public money in its campaign and taking advantage of its position as the party in power to spread its message. The Socialists, in addition, find very odd the fact that computers that held campaign plans and data, as well as other information, got stolen from the car of a leading left-wing politician in January. And the Socialists have called dubious and politically motivated a government-led investigation of bribery charges against Socialist candidate Mr. Medgyessy.
In March, MSZP chairman Laszlo Kovacs pulled out all the stops on the corruption angle when he declared on Hungarian Radio that "this government is the most corrupt government in Hungary's history."
But it was a charge that perhaps struck many voters as hollow hyperbole, given the Socialist Party's own well-known reputation for corruption when it was in power between 1994 and 1998 and the connection many Socialist Party members have with the discredited communist government that ran the country before 1989.
High technology has made a huge change in this year's election campaign, a fact not lost on such independent political analysts as Tibor Desseffy, who talks and writes about how Hungary entered suddenly the world of contemporary political campaigning over the past few months.
Unlike previous elections, candidates this year are being sold professionally much like automobiles and like politicians in Western Europe and the United States, he has said, a fact that leads him and other Hungarian political analysts to complain that serious discussion of important topics such as political corruption or Hungary's possible EU membership take a distant backseat to glamor and image.
In March, for example, Mr. Orban used the familiar words from the movie "Star Wars," saying, "The force is with us" in his campaign.
Two weeks later the Free Democrats, a party of the left, responded to the prime minister by picturing him on the Internet as the black-clad Darth Vader surrounded by equally sinister guards. This time the quotation read, "The force may be with them, but it is the dark side of the force."
Fidesz's campaign is run by Happy End, the firm that helped guide Mr. Orban to victory in the 1998 elections. It's main themes are patriotism and dignity.
Mr. Orban often speaks of his strong support for civic and family values. His best slogan is "The future has already begun," which puts voters minds on his four years in power and on the future.
By comparison, the Hungarian Socialist Party's slogans, "Hungary deserves more" and "In agreement with the nation," ring a bit insipid.
Despite the nonstop name-calling and the high-tech campaign, however, both parties do have platforms they constantly put before the voters. Mr. Orban, whose government oversaw Hungary's entrance into NATO, talks about joining the European Union soon.
He says he wants to turn Hungary "into the new Ireland," that enjoys the same economic upturn experienced by the Emerald Isle.
Mr. Fidesz's platform emphasizes tax cuts for families and state aid for housing and infrastructure. It speaks of doubling net wages by 2006. The center-left coalition wants a more transparent budget and, of course, "less corruption."
Both parties have made big promises to the public regarding increased pensions and health care.
The outspoken Mr. Orban first made a name for himself as a very young man back in 1989 when he demanded that Soviet troops leave Hungary, when few people made that demand publicly. During the campaign this year he brought to bear the same plain-speaking when he protested the publication of a photograph of his wife and four children in a pornographic site on the Internet, calling the image an attack on "the ideal of the family."
Those words resonated with supporters who like his family values campaign. But it is also clear that Mr. Fidesz and the center-left coalition are making use of a tactic that helped them win in 1998: emphasizing the Socialists and the left as the advocates of a failed philosophy of the past by reminding voters that Hungary had more than four decades of experience with centralized government and planning under the communists.
In early March conservative Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visited Hungary and offered strong support for Mr. Orban and the center-right coalition. At an election rally in the Buda hills in Budapest, the Italian leader praised Hungarians for their courage and resolve during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution when they took on the Soviet Union.
"Your sacrifice helped us [in Western Europe] to achieve and to hold onto freedom for over half a century up to the present day," said Mr. Berlusconi, appealing to Hungarian patriotism and pride and at the same time offering a not-so-subtle allusion to the evils of communism.
A similar point was made earlier this year when the House of Terror opened to large crowds.
It is located in a handsome building on one of Budapest's grand avenues that housed the Hungarian Nazi headquarters in 1944 and 1945 and after that was taken over by the communists.
It is estimated that at least 6,000 men and women died there and that 10,000 were tortured, most of them by communist interrogators. Not surprisingly, the Hungarian Socialist Party protested the museum and its name, calling the House of Terror yet another government-financed effort to garner votes.
Mr. Orban has ruled out any grand coalition between Mr. Fidesz and the center-left parties. He's also rejected any association with the far right and anti-Semitic Party For Justice and Life, or MIEP.

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