Center-Right Win Means Changes for Hungary

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Laszlo Balogh / Reuters

Supporters celebrate the landslide victory of Hungary's centre-right Fidesz party holding a sign that reads "Change," in central Budapest April 25, 2010.

Few countries in the E.U. have been as hard hit by the financial crisis as Hungary, and on Sunday voters responded by placing the nation's future in the hands of the center-right Fidesz party, giving the former parliamentary opposition an unprecedented mandate to respond to Hungary's numerous challenges.

In the second round of voting, Fidesz built on the commanding lead it had won on April 11, securing a total of 263 seats in Hungary's 386-seat parliament. The win gives the party a historic two-thirds majority mandate, which enables it to change key legislation and even make alterations to the country's constitution without seeking a consensus in parliament. "I think what they are going to do is focus on economic matters, reforms in the economic sphere and the Hungarian tax system, which is one of the least efficient in Europe," says Mark Szabo, head analyst for the Budapest-based think tank Perspective Institute. "Also, one of their first measures will be to change the election system to reduce the number of MPs and also to reform local governments. With a two-thirds majority, they can do all this."

The April 25 vote also reinforced Hungary's disillusionment with the incumbents, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSzP), which won second place but with only 59 seats. The Fidesz sweep ended eight years of Socialist rule in Hungary, and may banish Hungary's former Communists to the opposition benches indefinitely. "This was a serious setback for the MSzP," says Szabo. "I think this election was one of the worst-case performances they could have imagined."

Although some voters appeared wary of any party possessing a two-thirds constitution-changing majority, analysts argue that this mandate will allow Fidesz leader Viktor Orban, 46, to implement unpopular austerity measures, which the country badly needs to downsize an unwieldy civil service and diminish one of the largest budget deficits in the E.U. "The good thing is that responsibility is very clear," says Szabo. "In the past, the government was able to blame the coalition or the opposition for failing to make reforms. Orban will have no one to blame. This unprecedented majority gives him unprecedented power. If he fails to use it, only he will be blamed."

Even Fidesz's critics appear relieved that this majority victory eliminates any need for the party to seek parliamentary cooperation with the extreme-right Jobbik party, which rode voter discontent to a startling third-place victory with 47 seats. Analysts are mixed on the meaning behind the success of Jobbik, which campaigned on a program of "radical" change and racism, blaming Hungary's 600,000 Roma Gypsy population for many of the nation's problems, most notably street crime.

Some in Hungary see Jobbik as a protest movement that will eventually disappear. Others are not so optimistic. But all agree that Sunday's vote altered Hungary's body politic, giving life to newfound parties — like the liberal pro-environmental LMP, which won 16 votes — but virtually liquidating once powerful movements like the conservative MDF and liberal SzDSz parties. Orban gave voice to the seismic shift in Hungarian politics on the night of Fidesz's victory when he announced: "Today there was a revolution in the polling booths. Hungarians have overthrown the system and created a new one. The old system of leaders misusing their power was replaced by one of national unity."

Orban may have led a revolution, but a day after the vote Hungarians appeared unsure of what he intended to do with it. Orban and other Fidesz leaders were uncharacteristically tight-lipped about policy plans during the campaign, other than when they were articulating vague promises to create jobs by cutting taxes — something analysts claim will be difficult given Hungary's deficit. But in a press conference on Monday, Orban suggested that Hungary might renegotiate with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which in 2009 helped Hungary respond to the economic crisis with $25 billion in financing. He also said that Hungary under Fidesz may adopt a more economically independent position within the E.U. "In my view, neither the IMF nor the E.U.'s financial bodies are our bosses," Orban said. "We are not subordinate to them."

Orban will have to give policy specifics soon, during what is expected to be a short political honeymoon. But analysts believe that Hungarians are now ready for someone to make hard choices. Says Szabo: "For Hungarians, the election is a clear mandate. They know the government is now empowered to carry out reforms that have never been carried out before. They are ready for change."