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Post-Post-Communist Hungary


The Socialists might as well nominate Caligula’s horse for a seat in Parliament. It would still be elected,” a fellow passenger told me as we traveled by train from Vienna to Budapest shortly before the first round of the Hungarian parliamentary elections on May 8. We were at the border station between Austria and Hungary, where only a few years before soldiers carrying submachine guns would surround every train; stony-faced border guards would order you to stand up, to make sure that you were not somehow hiding a spy or a dissident, and passport control was a lengthy and carefully designed ritual of intimidation. A woman’s voice on the loudspeaker would welcome “our dear guests to the Hungarian People’s Republic.” Some years before the Communist collapse, Ihad sensed that the system was breaking down when a border guard sauntered over to the open train window to ask for a cigarette. Today there are no armed guards near the train, and a single policeman stamps your passport with scarcely a glance at the document or its owner. Watching him, I could not help wondering whether, following the electoral victory of the Socialist Party—a party largely made up of former Communists—he would not again become more vigilant.

The success in May of the MSZP, or Hungarian Socialist Party, would have been thought impossible only a few years ago, yet the Hungarian world is often turned upside down. During the last eighty years or so the country lost two major wars. It changed from a constitutional monarchy to a democratic republic in the fall of 1918 and then became, successively, a Bolshevik republic of councils in the spring of 1919; a counterrevolutionary, semi-constitutional kingdom without a king under Regent Admiral Miklós Horthy that autumn; a National Socialist terror regime in the autumn of 1944; a democratic republic in 1945; a Stalinist terror regime under Mátyás Rákosi in 1948; a somewhat less oppressive Communist system under Imre Nagy in 1953; a revolutionary democracy at the end of October 1956; a renewed Communist tyranny under János Kádár in November of the same year; a more relaxed and liberal Communist regime under the same man in the 1960s; an only formally Communist state in the second half of the 1980s; and a parliamentary republic in 1990. It is also worth recalling that Hungary lost two thirds of its territory to Romania, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Austria in the Treaty of the Trianon imposed by the Entente Powers in 1920, and was occupied in 1944, first by the German and then by the Soviet army.

Throughout this history Hungarians have often been affected by outside forces far stronger than themselves. The democratic republic under President Count Mihály Károlyi could not resist the concerted attack of the Yugoslav, Czechoslovak, and Romanian military forces, all of which had the support of the Entente Powers, and on March 21, 1919, Károlyi ceded power to a coalition of Bolsheviks and left-wing socialists. Béla Kun, the leader of the Hungarian Bolsheviks, who had now become Hungary’s virtual dictator, promised that Lenin would come to the aid of the Hungarian proletariat. The Bolsheviks’ “internationalist struggle” had at first enthusiastic support in the country, in part because it was widely interpreted as a fight to reconquer at least some of the territories Hungary had recently lost to its neighbors. But Soviet Russia was besieged and powerless to help, and after 133 days the Hungarian Republic of Councils was swept away by the Romanian army, which was supported by France. By then, however, the Red regime, which had engaged in dogmatic revolutionary experiments, had been greatly weakened by popular counterrevolutionary movements.

During World War II, Hungarians took an active part both in Hitler’s anti-Bolshevik crusade and in carrying out the Holocaust; yet even had they all been staunch anti-Nazis and democrats, the country would not have escaped death and ruin at the end of the war. In 1945 there were widespread hopes that Hungary might have a progressive democracy, but these were dashed by the Communist dictatorship imposed by the Soviets; and the heroic revolution of 1956 was crushed by Soviet tanks.

Today Hungarians again live in a democracy, in which two free elections have already taken place. The first, in 1990, put into power a conservative government headed by József Antall, and the second, held in May 1994, returned to power a socialist party led by the reformed Communists of the 1980s. The question arises whether the Hungarians have now freely chosen a potentially authoritarian regime.

The Socialists did indeed win a remarkable victory in a field crowded with other parties. In 1990, in the first free parliamentary elections since 1945, the MDF or Hungarian Democratic Forum, a conservative nationalist party (whom Iwill call the Conservatives), received nearly one fourth of the popular vote and, because of the complex Hungarian electoral law favoring the stronger parties, won 43 percent of the parliamentary seats.1 In this year’s elections, the Socialists received one third of the popular vote, and won 54 percent of the parliamentary seats.

During the elections, a surprising number of experienced and personally popular politicians lost out to virtually unknown Socialists. “He is such a nice and cultivated gentleman, and yet he lost to that political nobody,” an elderly cleaning woman in Budapest complained to me, referring to Iván Petoå«å«, president of the SZDSZ or Alliance of Free Democrats (whom I will call the Liberals). According to public opinion polls, Petoå«å« is one of the most popular politicians in Hungary; still, he was wiped out in his Budapest district by an actress with no political experience except that she was running on the Socialist ticket. Another elected Socialist deputy resigned before the first session of the new parliament. As he told the press, he had allowed his name to be put on one of the regional lists of Socialist candidates only after being assured that, because of his low position on the list, there was no danger of his being elected.

The election clearly reversed the main results of the last one: in 1990, the Socialists won a little over one tenth of the popular vote and were only the fourth largest party. In 1994 the Conservatives were reduced to being the third strongest political party. The other major parties had about the same proportion of votes in both elections, with the Liberals and the Young Democrats, another liberal party, together receiving more than 30 percent of the votes in 1990 and just a little fewer than that in 1994.2

Remarkably, neither the far left, represented by the Workers’ Party, a Marxist-Leninist group, nor the far right, represented by an assortment of parties bearing such fascist-sounding names as the “Party of Hungarian Truth and Life,” came close to obtaining the 5 percent of the votes necessary to gain a parliamentary seat. B. Izabella Király, a former parliamentary deputy (from 1990 to 1994) who attracted much attention internationally by rallying skinheads for her “patriotic” campaigns, received only 3 percent of the votes in her district.

A large difference between the two elections is that in 1990 the Conservatives had to enter into a rather unhappy coalition with a clerical and a populist-peasant party in order to form a government, whereas this time the Socialists did so well they could have chosen to govern alone. But they decided against doing so. Toward the end of June, after much negotiation, they agreed to form a coalition government with the Liberals, a party with a strong position on civil rights that was organized in 1988 by such dissidents as the philosopher János Kis and the writer György Konrád. Well aware of how the Communists had bullied their coalition partners in the late 1940s, the Liberals have tried with some success to obtain a favorable deal for themselves. They have three out of fourteen cabinet posts, including the ministries of Interior and Culture, as well as high posts in several other ministries and executive and legislative offices. The Liberals also have the right to insist that all major legislative proposals be approved by a consensus of the coalition members. However, even though the Liberal minister of the interior will now control the police, matters of “national security,” including the Hungarian equivalent of the FBI, will be under a Socialist minister.

The Liberal leaders claim, privately, that they could have had more ministerial posts but refused to accept such portfolios as, for instance, that of minister of the environment, which they fear would amount to political suicide in view of Hungary’s huge pollution problems. Nor did they wish to be burdened with the unpopular job of running the secret service and spying on Hungarian citizens. The truth seems to be that the Liberals wanted a coalition government even more than the Socialists did, but many of their leaders lack the perseverance and the negotiating skill of the Socialists. In any case, nothing will change the fact that the coalition government is backed by 209 Socialist deputies and only 70 Liberals.

The election results raise further questions: Why did the Socialists win? They were very careful not to announce any controversial programs before the elections, and they nominated many unknown candidates who had no past records that would be held against them; but they had an unexpected popularity that is still hard to explain. Another question is why, having won, they were so keen on forming a coalition with the Liberals, whose support they did not need. And how significant is it that, following the pattern of Lithuania and Poland, a Hungarian party led by former Communists has been voted into power? In post-Communist Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and many other former Soviet republics, as well as in Romania, Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia, and Croatia, power has consistently stayed in the hands of former Communist Party functionaries, while it is also likely that former Communists will win the Bulgarian and Slovak elections scheduled for the fall.

Finally, how important is it that most of the Socialist leaders were once functionaries of the Communist Party or the Young Communists? Is it perhaps more significant that many of them had a part in liberalizing the country during the last decade or so of the Kádár regime, and that today they officially advocate parliamentary democracy, continuing privatization, a tight monetary policy, and Hungary’s joining both NATO and the European Union?


Hungarians tend to agree among themselves that the conservative governing coalition of recent years brought disaster upon itself, and that, by voting Socialist, voters chose a party that appeared to be farthest away from the Conservatives and their coalition partners. Four years ago, even people who called themselves progressive thought the Conservatives were the best choice. They appeared on the whole to be more representative of the people than the Liberals, many of whose leaders were young intellectuals, or the Young Democrats, whom many people did not take seriously, or the Socialists, who were tainted by their Communist past. The Conservatives and especially their leader, the late József Antall, promised that they would encourage hard work, cautious economic reforms, a concern for moral standards, support for religious activity, modest restitution of property to the victims of communism, and at least some punishment for Communist crimes, especially those connected with the suppression of the revolution of 1956. The Conservatives were also committed to a vigorous defense of the interests of the over three million ethnic Hungarians who live in neighboring countries.

  1. 1

    The Hungarian electoral system, adopted in 1990, attempts to combine the advantages of the single district and proportional representations. The goal is to strengthen the more popular parties and politicians, thus enabling them to govern. All parties that do not receive at least 5 percent of the national vote are excluded from Parliament.

  2. 2

    The FIDESZ or Alliance of Young Democrats once had a rule that its members and political representatives could not be “over thirty-five.” Handsome young people in short skirts and blue jeans, the Young Democrats enchanted the Hungarian public and foreign journalists with their brilliant political analyses and their arguments for the free market. They did far less well at the recent elections than their enormous popularity a year or two earlier had led them to expect, proving that political parties that rely on youthfulness for their appeal have no future.

    The Young Democrats also miscalculated their campaign. Unwilling to compete with the Liberals on the left of center, they tried to attract support from the right of center and to act as liberal conservatives. This made them seem close to the governing Conservatives, and as a result both parties went down together.

    Certainly, however, they will remain memorable because of the relaxed and refreshing style they brought to Hungarian politics. Characteristic was their 1990 election poster, showing the famous photograph of an unshaven Leonid Brezhnev and the German Communist leader Erich Honecker exchanging what appears to be a French kiss, along with the photograph of a beautiful young couple gently kissing on the Danube shore. “The choice is yours,” the poster said.

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