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Hungary set to approve EU entry

Hungarians vote in Sajoszentpeter, 200 kms northeast of Budapest.
Hungarians vote in Sajoszentpeter, 200 kms northeast of Budapest.

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (Reuters) -- Hungarians voted strongly in favor of joining the European Union next year in a referendum on Saturday, preliminary results showed.

With just over half of the vote counted, figures released by the Electoral Committee showed more than 83 percent in favor of joining the EU and less than 17 percent against.

Polls opened early but initial signs of strong turnout at the 10,743 polling stations gave way to fears of participation below forecasts of over 60 percent.

The Electoral Commission reported at 1300 GMT that turnout was only 27.49 percent. In comparison, some 36 percent had cast ballots by that time in a 1997 plebiscite on joining NATO. Participation in the NATO vote ended at just under 50 percent.

Government officials, however, said they were not concerned and still expected a vast majority of the country's eight million eligible voters to cast their ballots.

"It's very good that we will belong to a family, to a big family in which there are values. We share these values with the other members of the European Union," Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy told journalists after casting his ballot.

"So I expect that Hungary will be an affluent country, with better prospects, and will be a rich country in the coming years," he said.

Hungary is the third candidate to hold a referendum among the 10 states invited to join the European Union in May 2004 -- Slovenia and Malta have already approved membership -- but the first major post-Communist country to do so.

All four parties in parliament support accession and have been part of a massive pro-EU campaign since February.

For many, the main reasons for joining the bloc of wealthier European nations are economic. Unfettered access to the EU will help solidify free market reforms implemented since the fall of communism.

But some fear membership of an enlarged EU will dilute the sovereignty of a smaller country like Hungary, and leave behind those in rural areas and older people who are likely to see fewer benefits of increased investment and wealth that membership is expected to bring.

"It's 'no' for me. I cannot make ends meet on my pension as it is. Why should it be better for me in the EU? There's nothing in it for me," pensioner Gyorgyi Csurgay said.

Financial markets have mostly factored in a 'yes' vote, though analysts say the currency, the forint, could get a boost.

"Even though Hungarian accession to the EU is effectively priced in, a large majority in favor would still be good news for the forint and also bonds," HSBC said in a report released just ahead of the vote.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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