Supporters of Western-style liberal democracy claimed a narrow victory Monday in a Hungarian national referendum that will postpone a presidential election scheduled for January.
Final official results in Hungary's first free voting since 1945 will not be announced until this morning, but unofficial returns showed supporters of a postponement leading by nearly 7,000 votes. An estimated 99% of the vote had been counted.
The victory for the referendum's sponsors, the four-party Alliance of Free Democrats, is a blow to the presidential hopes of Communist reformer Imre Pozsgay. As the man who led the campaign last summer for major reforms in the Communist Party, including renaming it the Hungarian Socialist Party, Pozsgay had been favored to win in January.
Referendum sponsors argued that Pozsgay represented too strong a link to four decades of Communist rule. In a sophisticated advertising campaign, they urged voters to break with the Communist past by voting to delay the presidential election.
"If you don't go to the polls," one of their campaign slogans said, "you vote for yesterday."
The radical, mostly young reformers broke the spell of Hungarian political apathy that dates back to 1956 and the crushing, by Soviet troops, of the Hungarian Uprising.
Under terms of the referendum that took place Sunday, there can be no presidential election until after multi-party parliamentary elections next spring. The president will then be chosen by Parliament rather than by direct election, as the ruling Socialist Party had preferred. Opposition groups hope to win strong representation in the new Parliament, giving their candidate a better chance at the presidency.
At a press conference Monday, Pozsgay admitted that his chances for election have been lessened.
"I have to concede," he said, "that if the president is elected in Parliament, my chances are slighter than by a direct vote."
At the headquarters of the Alliance of Free Democrats, supporters of the referendum celebrated their victory.
Miklos Haraszti, an author and outspoken activist who was frequently jailed under the Communist regime, said the victory will help reformers who favor a Western-style representative democracy in Hungary.
"The most important thing is that there is now nothing between us and parliamentary elections," said Haraszti, a leader of the independent Free Democratic Party.
He said the campaign by the four opposition parties--the Free Democrats, the Independent Smallholders, the Social Democrats and the Federation of Young Democrats--has "cemented together a good, liberal, Western-oriented alliance" to fight the Socialist Party in elections that are to take place by June.
But other opposition elements--some analysts say there are now 47 independent political parties in Hungary--contend that the referendum may have hurt the democratic cause by creating antagonisms and splintering the movement for reform.
"We are a disintegrated nation as a result of this close vote," said Denes Csengey, a leader of the Hungarian Democratic Forum, which had urged voters to boycott the referendum. "It would have been better to have a more decisive victory by either of the contending sides. The very close result would only bring about a division in our nation along such lines as young vs. old, rural vs. urban and university educated vs. non-university educated."
One of the major losers in the referendum may have been the Hungarian Democratic Forum. The rural-based, nationalistic Democratic Forum is considered the biggest and most powerful opposition political party. But, by urging a boycott, it may have lost supporters to the rival Alliance of Free Democrats.
In the days before the referendum, the Democratic Forum, which some political analysts say is secretly allied with Pozsgay and the Socialist Party, carried out a campaign against the Free Democrats that was tinged with anti-Semitism.
"I think it backfired on them," said Tibor Vitos, the campaign manager of the Alliance of Free Democrats.
"Speaking personally," said Daniel Lanyi, a Democratic Forum leader who deals with international relations for the party, "I think we made a big mistake calling for a boycott."