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Sunday, March 9, 2008

Will Hungary's 2008 referendum bring about Gyurcsany's downfall?

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico

Hungary held today a referendum on fees for visits to the doctor, hospital stays and university tuition, which were imposed by the Socialist-Liberal coalition government of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, as part of an austerity package to reduce the country's large budget deficit - the highest in the European Union as a percentage of GDP - and pave the way for Hungary's adoption of the euro as its currency. The referendum, which was called after the conservative Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Union - Hungary's main opposition party - collected enough signatures to force a vote on repeal of the fees, has become a test for Gyurcsany's government, which advocates their retention.

With most electoral districts reporting, results so far confirm findings from opinion polls which indicated the proposals would pass by a large margin, but the outcome of the referendum won't be binding unless votes in favor of the proposals constitute both a majority of ballots cast and more than one-quarter of the number of eligible citizens. However, the latest figures indicate just over half the electorate turned out to vote, and the vote appears all but certain to be conclusive.

Hungary's National Election Office has referendum results in English and Hungarian.

Since 2002, Hungary has been ruled by a coalition of the post-communist Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ). Prime Minister Gyurcsany, a former minister of children, youth and sports, has been in office since August 2004, when he replaced Peter Medgyessy - who had lost the confidence of the ruling parties - as head of government and leader of the Socialist Party. With Gyurcsany at the helm, the ruling coalition went on to prevail in the April 2006 parliamentary election, increasing its narrow parliamentary majority and becoming the first Hungarian government since the fall of Communism to be returned to office. However, in September 2006 a leaked tape revealed that Gyurcsany had lied about the state of the Hungarian economy to secure re-election.

The revelation, which triggered widespread protests that degenerated into rioting, proved to be extremely damaging for the government. The following month, the ruling alliance was heavily defeated in municipal elections, yet despite mounting calls for his resignation, Gyurcsany refused to step down, and won a subsequent vote of confidence in the National Assembly (Parliament). Nonetheless, Gyurcsany's government has yet to recover from the events of two years ago. Opinion polls indicate Fidesz would score a landslide victory if early elections were held this year, and the referendum results are likely to increase pressure on Prime Minister Gyurcsany to step down.

The 386-seat Hungarian National Assembly is elected by one of the world's most complicated electoral systems, which combines French-style runoff voting in single-member constituencies with county-based, party-list proportional representation and a cumbersome top-up national list intended to compensate parties for the disparities between votes and seats introduced by runoff voting at the constituency level and (to a lesser degree) PR at the county level. Part I of Elections to the Hungarian National Assembly has detailed results of parliamentary elections in Hungary since 1990.