Italy is not the only place in Europe to have a cliffhanger election at
the weekend. The same thing happened in Hungary, another country
feeling its way towards a two-party system.

In the early 1990s Hungary, like many of the other new democracies,
settled down to three major parties: liberals, conservatives and social
democrats. But in recent years the FIDESz party, which started out as
the radical youth wing of the liberals, has morphed into a strong new
conservative party under leader Victor Orban.

As a result, this election has been substantially a straight fight
between the opposition FIDESz and the governing social democrats under
prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany. The liberals and the original
conservative party, the Democratic Forum, have been squeezed out, both
struggling to reach the 5% threshold for representation in parliament
– they made it with 6.5% and 5.0% respectively – and both locked in
as coalition partners for the major parties: the liberals with the
social democrats and Democratic Forum with FIDESz.

The results of Sunday’s first round were inconclusive, but the social
democrats have a narrow lead, 43.2% to 42%. A large number of seats are
still undecided (Hungary’s system combines single-member constituencies
with proportional representation), so the outcome will be determined by
the second round, to be held the weekend after Easter. While the social
democrats must go into the second round as favourites, the
conservatives cannot be written off.

Hungary is especially interesting because it makes explicit a point
that is still contested in Australia: although both have mixed records,
the social democrats are clearly better friends of free market policies
than the conservatives. There are fears that a FIDESz victory could
lead to protectionist policies like those being pursued by the new
conservative government in Poland, and strengthen the place of economic
nationalism in the “new Europe”.