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Turnout High in Hungary Elections

May 24, 1998

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) _ It seems a huge choice at first glance _ voting for former communists led by a man who opposed anti-Soviet revolutionaries decades ago or for young, university-educated professionals who are in a hurry to ``westernize″ Hungary.

But whether Sunday’s elections are won by Socialist Prime Minister Gyula Horn or by Viktor Orban, his main challenger, Hungary should remain on course. Both are firmly committed to democracy and a free market.

In fact, it is Horn _ on the side of Moscow during the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising _ who first contributed to ending communist rule at the turn of the decade and since 1994 has moved Hungary firmly into the western mainstream at the head of his Socialist party of reformed communists.

``I expect a favorable result,″ Horn told reporters as he cast his ballot in Budapest’s posh 12th district, home to top government figures and Hungary’s millionaires.

Because of his government’s reforms, Hungary has been invited into NATO and has good chances of joining the European Union sometime after the year 2000. So, as Hungarians vote Sunday in the final round of parliamentary elections, it is more a choice of personalities than programs.

Only 56 percent of the eight million entitled to vote did so in the first round May 10.

Still, the elections appeared to stir some emotions. Police reported a bomb blast just after midnight in a building housing the local offices of the Hungarian Democratic Forum, a small center-right party. Two people were slightly injured.

Voters on Sunday appeared to be heeding appeals from all parties to turn out. Officials at several polling stations in and around Budapest reported as many as twice the number of people casting ballots in the first four hours as on May 10.

One exit poller for the Sonda-Ipsos company said ``substantially more″ people were voting for the Socialists at his balloting station, in Budapest’s 14th district.

Casting his vote there for the Socialists, phone repairman Janos Korodi said: ``I’m satisfied, why should I change?″

At another polling station in Budaoers, just outside Budapest, seven of 10 people questioned at random said they were voting for Orban’s Young Democrats-Civic Party.

``I voted against the Socialist candidate because I just don’t want them to get too comfortable,″ said Judit Kozma, a mid-level executive at a foreign company. She said she voted for the Young Democrats at the Budaoers station.

Polls opened Sunday at 6 a.m. and were to close 13 hours later. Definitive results were expected by midnight.

All major contenders hope to gain support from voters who stayed at home for the first round, when the Socialists got 32 percent and the center-right Young Democrats-Civic Party 28 percent.

Political analysts fear that neither party will have enough backing to govern.

The Socialists and their junior coalition partner, the liberal Free Democrats, have campaigned on the basis of their record.

Since winning in 1994, Horn has slashed spending and reduced public services.

Horn undid large pieces of the communist welfare state. He froze public-sector wages, cut 10,000 hospital beds, scrapped free dental care and subsidies for most prescription drugs, ended tuition-free university education and slapped on an import surcharge.

Now, more than 80 percent of the gross domestic product comes from the private sector; industrial production is rising; inflation and unemployment are falling; the balance of trade is improving, and the foreign debt is decreasing.

But the reforms have had a price.

Horn’s austerity program caused a 15 percent cut in real wages. Millions of Hungarians are suffering economic hardship, and even those making the average monthly wage of 60,000 forints (less than dlrs 300) can barely cover necessities.

So while Horn’s message has been ``let us not waste the accomplishments attained,″ Orban _ at 34 a little over half Horn’s age _ has been arguing: ``Let’s bring the past to a close, so the future may begin.″

Orban is untried, and his party has never held power. But he’s a survivor, coming back from a crushing defeat in 1994, when his party, generally considered the favorite, ended up with only 5.18 percent of the votes.

Four years later, he is a man in a hurry and wants Hungary to follow suit.

``Following the present government’s policies, it would take Hungary 50-55 years to catch up to the European Union average,″ he said. ``We want to reduce this to 25-30 years.″

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