“Hungary Chooses Europe”

Away from events around the Persian Gulf, for now, for just as coalition forces inexorably advance across Iraq, so too does the European Union’s expansion process proceed towards its anticipated destination of adding 10 new members sometime around May, 2004. After the populations of Malta and Slovenia had previously given their assent to EU membership for their countries (sorry, I don’t cover them), this past Saturday it was the turn of Hungary.

Of the candidate member countries, Malta is of course insignificant – in population, in economic and political significance. (Cypress would be equally so, but for the complication of it’s being a island divided between Greek and Turkish parts, and the political repercussions on EU relations with Turkey stemming from recent attempts to bring about a reconciliation between these two halves of the island so that they can unify to receive EU membership next year together. The prognosis for that happening is not good.) Slovenia is a bit more important – the first part of former Yugoslavia to become a candidate for the EU, and quite possibly the only one to do so for a long time, given how far Croatia and Serbia-Montenegro are from political acceptability because of those of their nationals who are wanted at the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. And as for Bosnia-Herzegovina – apart from its own candidates to go to The Hague – it is a bastardized sort of state, made up of ethnic enclaves, that has a long way to go before European Union nations could even consider admitting it to their club.

With Hungary, the membership-referendum process has proceeded to one of the key Central European states which in 1989 actually overthrew its Communist regime and replaced it with democratic rule. At the top of this process will be Poland – another state that made a clean break in 1989, and by far the most important of the candidate states at all in terms of population/economics/politics. The accession process there – which is supposed to culminate with the Polish referendum June 8 – is not going well, in the face of serious governmental instability, but for now that has to be put of to a future post – stay tuned.

Hungary’s EU accession referendum on 12 April, whose result was binding on the government, brought good news and bad news. The good news was the overwhelming predominance of “yes” votes over “no”: 83.76% to 14.24%, respectively. (That’s right, there were no disputed/spoiled ballots, according to the OVB, the state election commission.) The bad news was that only 45.62% of eligible voters bothered to show up to cast their ballot, meaning that, all told, 38% of eligible voters demonstrably supported Hungary’s joining the EU.

This immediately led to recriminations from FIDESZ the “young Democrats” right-wing opposition party, who, according to Népszabadság, blamed the low turn-out on the government’s “poor and insincere” referendum campaign. But such sniping was only to be expected from FIDESZ, a rather sore loser since it was unexpectedly voted out of power a year ago.

More to the point was why most Hungarian polling organizations, before the referendum, were forecasting 60% to 80% voter participation. An interesting article by Ákos Jezsó in Magyar Nemzet – widely considered to be FIDESZ’s flagship newspaper – goes into this question: Ismét melléfogtak a közvéleménykutatók – “The public opinion researchers blundered again.” Strangely, these public opinion companies, by and large, also blame the government for the low turnout: “it didn’t emphasize enough the binding nature of the referendum”; “people got the feeling that ‘yes’ was such a sure thing that they didn’t need to show up at the polls.” Whatever the reason, for what Hungarian president Ference Madl termed “Hungary’s most important decision of the 21st century,” the low turnout cannot but be disquieting.

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