Europe can stop worrying that Hungary’s new parliament and government might include members of a far right party. The Justice and Life Party flopped in Sunday’s first-round election, while the Socialists won.
Red carnations for Socialist victory
Socialist victory in the first round of Hungary’s parliamentary elections has put the conservative Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban on the defensive, while the far right Justice & Life Party failed to break the 5 percent barrier needed for parliamentary entry.
The Socialists – with 41.3 percent of the vote to Fidesz’s 40.3 percent – looked set to topple Orban’s government in the second round on April 21.
The result, despite Orban’s one-time popularity in the West, is seen as a relief to the European Union. Orban opted for nationalist rhetoric during the campaign, and the minor success of Justice & Life in public opinion polls led some diplomats to worry that nationalism could raise its head in Hungary.
A stronger showing by Justice & Life, enough to boost Fidesz to victory if the parties formed a coalition, could have had ugly consequences for EU enlargement and raised the nationalist tone in elections this year elsewhere in the region: Germany, Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Supporters of the youth organization of Hungary's biggest opposition party, the Socialists, and the youth movement of the opposition Free Democrats attend a rally held next to the headquarters of ruling Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Party) at the Heroes' Square in Budapest, Hungary, Tuesday April 2.
The result could have been a set of leaders "feeding off each other’s nationalism" – a catastrophe for the kind of Europe envisaged by EU leaders in Brussels, enlargement expert Heather Grabbe told Reuters.
"That would mean the past was back to haunt us, and instead of looking forwards to 2004 we would be looking back to 1945," Grabbe said, referring to complex, decades-old debates over ethnic and national rights that Orban and the far right resurrected early in the election campaign.
Instead, Justice & Life’s failure to break 5 percent means that Fidesz will has no chance to beat out the centre-left by forming a coalition on the right.
By contrast, though they did note win an outright majority, the Socialists running with banker Peter Medgyessy as their prime ministerial candidate were well placed with 99.75 percent of ballots counted.
The Socialists’ traditional ally the liberal Free Democrats came in third with over six percent, raising the prospect of government under a centre-left coalition like one that ruled 1994-1998.
Two men pass in front of election posters of Hungary's leading parties Fidesz (Union of Young Democrats) and MSZP (Hungarian Socialist Party. The Fidesz poster, right, shows Viktor Orban, conservative Prime Minister of Hungary, with sprayed-on graffity depicting the moustashe of Adolf Hitler.
One ethnic group pleased by Sunday’s first-round result was Hungary’s sizeable Roma community (Gypsies). Minority rights have been a theme of the campaign, with the Free Democrats presenting detailed plans on the issue and the Socialists promising progress for minorities as well.
"Most of the Roma politicians are optimistic at the moment," Gabor Miklosi, a journalist at the Roma Press Center in Budapest, told DW-WORLD. "The Socialist Party is expected to eliminate discriminatory measures put in place by the conservative government (since 1998)."
Medgyessy has made the most of the animosity between the government and the Roma, campaigning with promises to end divisions in Hungarian society he said opened up under the Orban government – between "haves and have-nots", ethnic Hungarians and minorities. "Where the minority is suffering, the majority of a society cannot feel well," he said.
But Orban’s government has steadfastly defended itself, saying that Roma issues are dealt with as effectively in Hungary as elsewhere in Europe.
The government even took out a full-page advertisement in the London-based weekly The Economist, to say that "while the EU report rapped Hungary's knuckles for the Gypsies' plight, the situation is not much better in the EU."