Hungary re-elects maverick PM, early results show

Photo: Hungary re-elects maverick PM, early results show / Politics

Hungarians have handed Prime Minister Viktor Orban another four years in power, early results showed from a parliamentary election on Sunday that also entrenched the far-right Jobbik party as a major political force, Reuters reported.

Orban, 50, has had repeated disputes with the European Union and foreign investors, especially over measures that have cut into revenues at the country's mostly foreign-owned banks, telecoms and energy firms.

But many Hungarians see him as a champion of national interests and also like the fact that under his center-right government personal income tax and household power bills have fallen.

A partial tally released by election officials, based on a count of about a quarter of the ballots cast, gave Orban's Fidesz party 48.2 percent of the vote.

The Socialist-led leftist opposition alliance was on 22 percent and Jobbik had 21.64 percent, according to the tally.

If those figures are borne out in the final result, Hungary's election system would translate them into a big majority in parliament for Fidesz.

"We can now say for certain that for the first time since the change of regime, a center-right government will govern for two successive terms," said Fidesz lawmaker Gergely Gulyas, referring to the collapse of Communist rule in 1989.

The result for Jobbik, accused by critics of being anti-Semitic, will be watched closely for clues about how other nationalist right-wing parties will perform in European Parliament elections next month.

The incomplete tally of the national vote showed Jobbik was neck-and-neck with the leftists to become Hungary's second biggest political force - a dramatic advance by a party which shocked many people in Europe when it won its first seats four years ago.

The party has pledged to create jobs, be tough on crime, renegotiate state debt and hold a referendum on EU membership. While it denies being racist, it provides a lightning rod for suspicion among some Hungarians towards the Roma and Jews.

"I'm sure we'll surprise everyone," Jobbik leader Gabor Vona said in his home town of Gyongyos after casting his vote accompanied by his wife and son.

In the past four years, Orban's policies have included a nationalization of private pension funds, swinging "crisis taxes" on big business, and a relief scheme for mortgage holders for which the banks, mostly foreign-owned, had to pay.

Orban has pledged more of the same if re-elected, and the business community expects him in particular to press ahead with a plan to transfer big chunks of the banking sector into Hungarian hands, and impose more levies on foreign power firms.

More unpredictable policies could weigh on Hungary's forint currency, especially if the central bank - led by a close ally of Orban's - cuts interest rates further from record lows, against a backdrop of jittery sentiment in global markets.

Those policies have played well with voters and helped Hungary emerge from recession, but some economists say that by hurting foreign investors, Orban may have scared off the kind of investment Hungary needs for long-term growth.

"Big business do not want the frequent changes of policy, particularly in terms of taxes, which were characteristic of Orban's last term," said Timothy Ash of Standard Bank.

The election was likely to be a new low point for the leftists, who were ousted in 2010 after racking up huge amounts of public debt, and after their leader four years earlier was caught on tape admitting his government was lying to the public.

Some Hungarians worry that, without a credible challenge to his dominance, Orban has accumulated too much power.

Critics say Orban has already used his mandate to curb democratic checks and balances and the freedom of the media, allegations his government rejects.

"We had a regime change in 1989 so we don't have to put up with a one-party system any longer, and these four years looked a lot like a one-party system," Agota Guczky said in the town of Veresegyhaz just east of Budapest.

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