Stung by the poverty and insecurity that have marked the post-Communist era, Hungarians voted Sunday for a political about-face by choosing reformed Socialists and leftist liberals in nationwide elections.
With more than 97% of the ballots counted, the Hungarian Socialist Party was the clear front-runner with 33% of the popular vote and leading in 152 out of 176 individual races for Parliament seats.
Running second with nearly 20% was the Alliance of Free Democrats, a liberal party committed to broadening free-market reforms to lure new jobs and foreign investment to Hungary.
"What is quite obvious is that the voters have decided to change the present government," Free Democrat campaign manager Balint Magyar declared after the returns showed his party and the Socialists had rolled up a combined majority.
Despite considerable ideological differences, the Socialists and the Free Democrats have been hinting in recent weeks that they may join forces to form a government to replace the center-right alliance now in power.
The conservative Hungarian Democratic Forum that leads the current governing coalition was running a distant third in unofficial returns, with 11.9% of the vote.
Its governing partners, the Independent Smallholders Party and the Christian Democrats, were respectively collecting about 9% and 7% of the vote for parties, which will decide 210 of the 386 seats in Parliament.
"Although we expected to do better, we have to respect the decision of the people," incumbent Prime Minister Peter Boross conceded once the Forum's loss became apparent. "The ratio could still change, but we are prepared to be a constructive opposition force."
Socialist Party leader Gyula Horn, who was injured in a car accident Thursday, said in a telephone interview from his hospital room that he will spend the next weeks seeking alliances to heal the deep rifts in Hungarian society.
"I am troubled by the divisions in this small country and hope for reconciliation, that we can lead the country out of its difficulties together," Horn told Hungarian TV.
Voter turnout of 70% was surprisingly brisk, considering the apathy among Hungarians as they watched their regional lead in the race for capitalist prosperity erode under the government's go-slow approach to the transition.
The strong showing of the Socialists and Free Democrats reflected the broad disillusionment Hungarians feel after four years of tumultuous change that has left most people worse off than they were under the Communist system. Unemployment is at 13%, and inflation is about 22%.
"My life reads like a tragedy over the past four years. I had a good business under the old regime, and now I live like a pauper," complained Erzsebet Radonics, a 54-year-old hairdresser who voted for the Socialists. "My costs for everything have skyrocketed--rent, electricity, heat, beauty supplies. But now no one has enough money to go to a hairdresser, so I'm going broke."
Her lament was a familiar one, even among the new class of entrepreneurs. They accuse the Forum-led government of imposing such a repressive tax structure that job-creating investment is stifled and the privatization of state-owned industries has stopped.
Hungarians had the opportunity to run their own businesses and boost income under economic reforms introduced in the 1970s that were disparaged by hard-liners in Moscow as "goulash communism."
But the entrepreneurial class that emerged from that era has tended to suffer the brunt of the political transition that followed the peaceful 1989 revolution that toppled one-party rule.
Gyorgy Tasko, a 46-year-old bachelor, owns his own surveying company but says the recession in the construction industry has slashed his business.
"If I only took my own interests into consideration, I would have voted differently. But I see so much poverty and suffering around me that I felt we needed a change, to go back to a system that paid more attention to social welfare," said Tasko.
A second round of voting is set for May 29 to decide the majority of individual races.