29/03/2006 - D-7
Over eight million Hungarians are being called to vote on 9th April next for the first round in the general elections in which Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany (Socialist Party) is standing for another term in office. His main adversary is the former Head of Government (1998-2002), Viktor Orban (Alliance of Young Democrats, FIDESZ). Both men are about the same age (the Social Democrat leader is 44 and Viktor Orban is 45) and have rivalled each other in terms of electoral promises in this campaign and are running neck and neck in all of the polls. The 'small' parties' results such as the Democratic Forum (MDF) and the Free Democrat Alliance (SZDSZ), the Social Democrats' partners within the present government coalition, might therefore be decisive on 9th and 23rd April (the date of the second round of the election).
On 12th March Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany started a tour of Hungary. He is travelling the country with two ultramodern lorries stopping off in around fifty towns during the four week duration of the campaign. The Prime Minister is due to hold seven meetings per day until 9th April next. The Socialist Party which has a firm footing in the towns is trying to win over the rural electorate, traditionally closer to the Alliance of Young Democrats. Ferenc Gyurcsany presented his electoral programme entitled "New Hungary" on 19th February last during his party's national congress. The programme plans to create a great number of jobs within SME's (300,000 in the construction industry, 170, 000 of which will be for unqualified workers) and defines three priorities: the modernisation of industry, services and tourism. The Prime Minister has also said that he would like to develop biotechnologies in the agricultural sector declaring his wish for Hungary to become "the second or third leading country in terms of biofuels in Europe." A State reform that will help reduce running costs will enable to fund the Socialist Party's programme in part. Social Democrat leader Istvan Hiller has however confirmed that his party would not accept the reduction in planned investments in infrastructures in order to balance the nation's budget. Ferenc Gyurcsany has announced that most of the European Funds would be used to create jobs. "It seems impossible to me to reduce taxation in any major way over the year to come," he maintained, saying that "development, the reduction of the public deficit and reduction in taxation did not comprise objectives that could be achieved simultaneously."
On 17th March the Prime Minister created a certain degree of surprise by declaring that Hungary's inclusion in the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) could only be decided by the people and he announced the organisation of a referendum on the subject. "We should ask the Hungarians whether they want it or not," he stressed in an interview with the economic daily Vilaggazdasag. On signing its membership treaty with the EU on 16th April 2003 Hungary committed itself to joining the Euro Zone. Hence the country does not enjoy the benefit of an opting out clause like for example the UK or Denmark but can however take example from Sweden which organised a referendum on 14th September 2003 on its membership of the EMU (membership was rejected by 56.1% of the voters with a participation rate of 81.2%). By proposing this referendum Ferenc Gyurcsany hopes to win over the great number of voters who believe that the transfer to using the Euro will lead to a rise in prices. The Prime Minister might also be employing this method to promote these inevitable measures amongst the population which the next government will have to take if it is to respect its commitments with regard to the community institutions.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Labour Party) recently gave Ferenc Gyurcsany his support congratulating him on his country's economic results. ""Ferenc, my congratulations to you and your team for producing such high growth (4% in 2005) and such a low inflation rate, you must be very proud," he declared on his visit to Budapest. Tony Blair also thanked him for having defended the states of Central Europe in December last during the EU budget negotiations 2007-2013 when the UK was in charge of the Union's presidency. Tony Blair maintained that there were a great number of similarities between the Hungarian Socialist Party and the British Labour Party. It is true that Ferenc Gyurcsany has often been nicknamed the "Hungarian Tony Blair" for his desire to transform the Socialist Party, founded in 1989 by reforming politicians of the former Communist Party into a modern Social Democrat movement. On 13th October 2005 Les Echos asked him to choose between the policy undertaken by Tony Blair in the UK and that by Gerhard Schröder in Germany; Ferenc Gyurcsany answered, "I would plead for a third way, the Hungarian way: capital and work must be able to co-operate, follow a courageous policy of reform but also take into account that without State aid hundreds of thousands of people cannot make up for lost time. Social cohesion and modernisation cannot be achieved to the detriment of others. All politicians on the left have to understand this; following a traditional, defensive social policy is condemned to failure."
The Alliance of Young Democrats (FIDESZ), which met in congress on 19th March appointed Viktor Orban as their candidate for Prime Minister. The former head of government (1998-2002) won the votes of 1,384 delegates out of a total of 1,395 present. Viktor Orban presented his party's programme which is focused on the fight against unemployment and promises the creation of 500,000 new jobs over four years. The liberal party suggests the "promotion of a taxation and security system to help companies to employ people," to increase retirement pensions, to make medical care free for the under three's and the over sixties', to reduce the price of electricity and heating (by 10%) as well as reduce social contributions on the part of employers from the present 29% to 19%, a measure estimated at a cost of 2.5 billion euros on the party of the Socialist Party and which according to the Social Democrats will "lead the country to the verge of disaster". Finally the opposition party has said that it is in favour of a partial review of privatisation and the adoption of a more protectionist policy. The Alliance of Young Democrats is planning to provide itself with the means to bring back all of the students and researchers who left the country by helping them to find work in Hungary and to create their own companies. The liberal party would also like to increase the budget dedicated to tourism and make Hungary the leading tourist destination in Central Europe. To this end the programme includes the construction of a new congress centre in Budapest that will be able to receive 5,000 people. The increase in social spending, reduction in taxes and also the public deficit also feature in the programme but without the party explaining how it will be possible to achieve these three goals at the same time. The cost of the Alliance's programme has been estimated however at 3.8 billion forints (around 15 million euro) according to economists.
The two main political parties are undertaking a mutual campaign of vilification. The president of the Democratic Forum, Ibolya David, has said some extremely severe things about the Socialist Party and the Alliance of Young Democrats highlighting that over the last 17 years she had never participated in an electoral campaign "so full of lies and unrealistic promises." The MSZP, the FIDESZ and the Alliance of Young Democrats did sign an ethical code on 10th March with the general elections on the horizon.
The Free Democrat Alliance (SZDSZ) has centred its campaign on the reform of the social system. The reduction in the number of MP's and the establishment of a blanket tax rate of 20% on VAT, income tax and company tax also features in the party's programme. The Free Democrat Alliance will put 158 candidates forward nationally and has also decided not to ally itself with the Socialist Party in Budapest but to undertake its own campaign. The party is fighting to reach 5% of the vote cast, a vital figure if the party is to be represented in Parliament. "We want a multipartite system not a bipartite one, this is not a good thing," declared Gabor Kuncze the party's leader, maintaining that he would like the Democratic Forum also achieve the 5% voting threshold.
For its part the Democratic Forum (MDF) suggests the reduction of taxes and says it is in favour of establishing a blanket tax rate of 18%. 121 from this party will be standing in the next elections and it plans for a number of measures for young people as well as the creation of the post of Youth Minister.
The Democratic Forum, a member of the government coalition led by the Alliance of Young Democrats between 1998 and 2002 chose not ally itself with the FIDESZ in these general elections. "The Democratic Forum is centre-right. Although our members are close to the Alliance of Young Democrats this party has developed especially over the last year a leftwing populist rhetoric worthy of the Janos Kadar era, (Head of government after the 1956 uprising until 1958 and between 1961 and 1965, first secretary of the Communist Party between 1956-1988), and I make no mention of its supporters' behaviour towards our candidates," declared Ibolya David. She was referring to the threats and blackmail employed by a militant belonging to the Alliance of Young Democrats (Zoltan Bago) on a Democratic Forum candidate, Imre Romsics, in order for the latter to withdraw his candidature in favour of the FIDESZ candidate. As soon as it found out about this the Alliance of Young Democrats reacted immediately by excluding the incriminated militant from its electoral lists and the party. Viktor Orban wrote an apology to Ibolya David. The centrist party did however maintain however that some 27 of its candidates had been threatened in a similar way by Alliance of Young Democrats' representatives and has decided to lodge a complaint in court against these activities.
On 16th March last the first electoral debate took place on TV between the Economy Minister Janos Korda (MSZP) and the head of the parliamentary group of the Alliance of Young Democrats, Janos Ader. Both men debated energy problems, the Welfare State and the family. Candidates running for the position of Prime Minister Viktor Orban (FIDESZ) and Ferenc Gyurcsany (MSZP) will face each other on 5th April. Two days earlier the two men will take part in a televised debate along with Gabor Kuncze (SZDSZ) and Ibolya David (MDF).
For the first time since 1990 the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has highlighted the "honest and professional character of the elections in Hungary" and has decided not to send in observers this time round.
Around 5,000 Hungarians living abroad will register for the elections on 9th and 23rd April. Hungarians living in the UK comprise the greater part of this population (around 700 people). Political analysts are expecting a lower turn out rate than for the general election on 7th and 21st April 2002 (70.43% in the first round and 73.47% in the second). According to the polls those close to the ruling Socialist Party are more motivated: 76% of them say they are sure about going to vote versus 73% of those who support the Alliance of Young Democrats. Voters for other parties seem less motivated: 67% of those close to the Democratic Forum and 64% of those who vote for the Free Democrat Alliance say they are certain about going to vote.
Although the Alliance of Young Democrats remained in the lead for a long time it has now been caught up by the Socialist Party. On 16th March the Social Democrats even took the lead in a poll undertaken by Median published by the weekly HVG. Hence the Socialist Party is due to win 37% of the vote, versus 32% for the Alliance of Young Democrats. According to this poll the Free Democrat Alliance would rise above the vital 5% threshold contrary to the Democratic Forum which is due to win only 3% of the vote. Around two voters in ten are still undecided (22%). On 24th March another poll undertaken by Szonda Ipsos, published in the newspaper Nepszabadsag credited the Socialist Party with 30% of the voting intentions versus 28% only for the Alliance of Young Democrats.