Hungarians vote for a new parliament tomorrow, in the fifth election since the end of communism but the first since the country joined the EU in 2004. Opinion polls show a slight lead for premier Ferenc Gyurcsany and his Socialists over the opposition Fidesz party. But it is set to be a close race between the two parties, with a second round run-off slated for 23 April.
The Socialist are aiming to be the first party to win two successive mandates.
The Socialists and their liberal coalition partners are strong in the capital, Budapest, while in the countryside support is higher for centre-right Fidesz party led by Viktor Orban.
Orban, who was Prime Minister between 1998 and 2002, has been in parliament for 16 years and is known as a pugnacious speaker. His conservative movement, allied with the small Hungarian Civic Union, says the population needs to be protected from what it calls wild capitalism. The Socialists say the country needs to embrace globalisation. Like the centre right, Gyurcsany has been promising lower taxes and increased welfare spending.
That has alarmed some economists, given that Hungary needs to halve its budget deficit to three per cent of GDP before it can join the euro zone.
The Socialists were buoyed earlier this week by a strong performance from Gyurcsany in a televised debate with Orban. Orban, a well-known dissident in the Communist era, has made much of the past of 44-year-old millionaire Gyurcsany, a former Communist youth leader.