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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 12:311–318.


An Attempted Electoral Reform in Hungary at the Turn of the Century


The Hungarian constitutional conflict in 1905–6 was ended by a peculiar compromise: the Coalition made a secret pact with Emperor Francis Joseph, in which it gave up (or at least set aside for an indefinite time) the realisation of its nationalist constitutional program, above all the demands for the national character of the Hungarian part of the joint army and, in turn, it took upon itself the implementation of the electoral reform, which had been promised and devised by the Fejérváry-government.

The politicians of the Coalition kept secret the pact with the king, and they didn’t intend to keep either the one, or the other part of it. They hoped that, under favourable circumstances, they would be able to wrest some constitutional concessions from the king. Their promises for universal, democratic suffrage they didn’t want to keep, because most of them were afraid of the growing strength of the movements of non-Magyar nationalities in Hungary, and of the growing Hungarian workers’ movement. Nevertheless, it was obvious, that at least some sort of electoral reform had to be introduced. For this was the demand not only of Francis Joseph (especially after the Austrian elections of 1907, on the basis of universal suffrage, the results of which had been the strengthening of the Christian Socialists, loyal supporters of the dynasty) but also most of the supporters of the coalition. For the camp of the coalition (virtually almost the whole Hungarian public opinion) regarded electoral reform not only helping the Magyar national case, but also the liberal, parliamentary spirit, which was violated by the unconstitutional methods of Tisza’s and Fejérváry’s governments.

Yet in the first one-and-the-half year of its rule, the coalition put aside the issue of electoral reform. The outcome of the first Austrian elections based on universal suffrage – the relative weakening of the different nationalist forces, and the German Liberals, and the strengthening of the Socialists, and Christian Socialists – could not arouse the enthusiasm of the coalition for universal suffrage. Instead, it attempted to realise somehow its national aspirations – but only with very limited success.

However, in the autumn of 1907 two events brought home the necessity of some reform to the leaders of the Coalition. In Csernova the followers of Father Hlinka, the well-known Slovak nationalist leader, clashed with the Magyar gendarmerie, and the incident had caused heavy casualties. This event made international public opinion aware of intolerant nationalist politics of the Hungarian ruling classes toward the nationalities, and had very unfavourable effects for the international prestige of Hungary. On the other hand, the Social Democratic workers’ movement made a great mass demonstration for universal suffrage at 10. October, 1907.

However, the Coalition, composed of an alliance of heterogeneous political forces, united originally only by hatred against Tisza and his regime, did not have a common position about the nature of the reform to be introduced. Count Gyula Andrássy the younger, the Minister of Home Affairs in the Coalition government and his Constitutional Party, were upholders of the Compromise of 1867. They were conservatives even in the Coalition in the matter of suffrage. Nevertheless Andrássy had enough political insight to recognise the necessity of alleviating mass political discontent with some sort of electoral reform. Andrássy, as an upholder of the Compromise, had a secret hope, that the main force of the Coalition, the Independence Party, would lose its great popularity during the governing period of the Coalition – because it would be unable to realise the principles of 1848, the program of personal union – and at the next election the upholders of the Compromise would gain a majority. His aspiration was to create a suffrage which would limit the political weight of the main basis of the Independence Party, the peasant masses of the Great Hungarian Plain. Of course, Andrássy also just wanted to reduce the influence of the Socialists, but – as his great and hated opponent, Count Stephan Tisza – he also had a higher opinion of the educated and disciplined, well-organised urban working class, than of the poor peasantry, and he was aware, that in an industrial society the political scene necessarily had a socialist-working class component. Thus, he wanted to give at least “something” to the workers’ movement by the reform. As for the non-Magyar nationalities of Hungary, Andrássy was the bitterest enemy of their political aspirations for autonomy but, being aware the worsening international prestige of Hungary, he didn’t want an electoral law of openly Magyar nationalist character. To reconcile these many political respects Andrássy found a new, unusual means at the end of 1907: the plural vote. The plural vote – which in this period existed only in Belgium – meant, for Andrássy, that the votes of the more educated, wealthier and more sedate elements of the population would counteract the political influence of the illiterate masses. Particularly, the bill of Andrássy would have given franchise to every Hungarian male citizen, over 24, who had owned an apartment, or rented one at least for one year. However, the illiterates could exercise their suffrage only in an indirect form, in a decimal system: ten of them would elect a trustee. Their votes would amount to a small fragment of all the votes: 3,3 percents. One vote was given to every literate male citizen over 24 years of age. Those would get two vote, who either completed the first four classes of the secondary school or of the higher elementary school, or had a job, the necessary condition for which was such a level of education, or he was over 32, did his military service, and had at least three legitimate children or payd a tax of at least 20 koronas per year, or had at least one male employee over 16, or had a job at one place at least for five years. Three votes could be received by those, who completed the eight classes of secondary school, or had a job, the condition of which was such an education, or paid an amount of taxes at least 100 korona per year. The votes of “single” voters would amount to 35.1 % of all the votes, the votes of “double” voters to 44.2 %, and the votes of “triple” voters would come to 17.4 % of all the votes. The proposal wouldn’t have had a very elitist, antidemocratic character, if it had contained the secret ballot. However, Andrássy was against the secret ballot, and he would have allowed it at least partially only in the larger towns.1

Although Andrássy didn’t admit officially that he wanted a plural vote, the first news about his proposal had filtered out to the public at the spring of 1908, and it gave rise to strong resistance from almost all sides of political life. Stephan Tisza, and the “old guard” of the Liberal Party, who were not present in the parliament but had great influence on public opinion through their press, found even Andrássy’s proposal too liberal and they attacked it. József Kristóffy, ex-minister of Home Affairs in the Fejérváry-government, and confidant of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, who conceived the idea of crushing Magyar nationalism by the promise of universal suffrage, now tried to organise a small party of his own. He read out at a dinner the text of the pact between the Coalition and the king, in which the Coalition promised the introduction of universal suffrage. The conservative Austrian circles around the journal “Das Vaterland” also began publishing against the idea of plural vote – their concerns were similar to those of Kristóffy and Archduke Francis Ferdinand. The Social Democratic worker’s movement protested with strikes receiving unconditional support from their Austrian comrades and from the Second International, the secretary-general of which then was Camille Huysmans. He was Belgian and had a personal acquaintance with the negative social and political effects of the plural vote, and wrote a letter against it to Andrássy. The periodical of the bourgeois radical intelligentsia, “Huszadik Század” (“The Twentieth Century”) analysed and criticised Andrássy’s proposal on a high theoretical level. According to the writer, it wouldn’t reduce, but rather strengthen the hierarchical character of Hungarian society, and would ensure the decisive political influence for politically uneducated elements whose livelihood depended on the State, and could be easily influenced.

But Andrássy’s proposal didn’t receive unequivocal support in the camp of the Coalition. The right wing of the main force of the Independence Party, led by Ferenc Kossuth, had even more conservative views about the workers’ movement than Andrássy. At the same time he didn’t want the “triple” vote (being afraid of the overwhelming influence of the urban population, less receptive to his Magyar nationalist ideas, which always were more popular among the Magyar peasantry). As for the left wing of the Independence Party, its members had, in principle, some inclination to revive the democratic content of the tradition of Kossuth. However, this tendency – represented primarily by Julius Justh – was overwhelmed by the chauvinistic aspirations of the other leader of the left wing: Lajos Holló. Holló and his circle demanded that Andrássy include in the bill the requirement of Magyar literacy, as a condition for the franchise. Andrássy couldn’t accept this – he found a separate measure to counterbalance the nationalities. This was a new arrangement of the constituencies – unfavourable to the nationalities. According to Andrássy’s schema, about 300 electoral districts with a secure Magyar majority stood against hardly more than 100 electoral districts of the nationalities. However, this solution couldn’t satisfy his nationalist opponents in the Independence Party, because they suspected the germ of some sort of autonomy for the nationalities in the idea of “separate” non-Magyar districts.2 The third party of the Coalition, the Catholic People’s Party, was afraid growing of the influence of the secularised urban population and the Jews, and it wanted to preserve the weight of their own mass basis – mostly illiterate, religious peasant masses. Although they were not adherents of universal suffrage they were unwilling support the property and educational qualifications proposed by Andrássy.

Emperor Francis Joseph didn’t receive Andrássy’s plan with sympathy. “Plural vote isn’t a nice thing, isn’t nice at all” – he said to his minister at his audience. However, Andrássy explained to the king that, while in Austria the joint Austro-Hungarian Army is a popular institution, in Hungary, if all literate male would have equal suffrage, the decisive political power would go to politically uneducated voters, who enthusiastically support the socialists, the Independence Party, or the non-Magyar autonomists. The old Emperor, even if unwillingly, acquiesced in the idea of plurality, but he insisted on the secret ballot. Andrássy made a half-hearted promise to the partially secret ballot.3

Contrary to his loud opponents in the Independence Party, the clever Andrássy was aware of the great popular force of the Hungarian workers’ movement, which couldn’t be suppressed by simple administrative means. He was afraid of Socialists provoking consciously bloodshed, which would prompt the king to reject his idea. He began negotiations with Ernő Garami, perhaps the most respected leader of the Socialists. He cited the clerical, conservative, and allegedly anti-Semitic nature of the Magyar peasantry, which could be harnessed to oppose all the aspirations of Socialists and progressives. Garami declared that the Socialist perhaps could acquiesce in the plural vote, if they were given at least the secret ballot.4

It seems that the negotiations convinced Garami and other Socialists, that the workers’ movement couldn’t achieve much more, than Andrássy’s reform for the time being. Thus, for some months the Socialist press moderated its campaign against the minister, and he also changed his tone towards it. However, the Party couldn’t admit to the workers’ masses the acceptance of plurality. Thus, the spirit of the workers remained just pugnacious enough to deter Andrássy from setting the bill before the Parliament before the completion of the great agricultural tasks of the summer.

In the summer of 1908 the issue of the suffrage was removed from the agenda. Andrássy cited the necessity of completing some statistical researches necessary for the reform. In the meantime, the politicians of the Coalition were negotiating with Francis Joseph, and they reached the conclusion that ultimately he would not insist on the secret ballot. However a final compromise was not yet achieved.5

Obviously, Andrássy wanted to obtain final sanctioning by the king, before he would put the proposal before the country, but this was prevented by an unexpected event. The text of the proposal was stolen from the Hungarian Central Office of Statistics by some Socialist sympathisers, and was turned over to the Socialist leaders. The Socialists weren’t completely aware of the extent to which Andrássy wanted to limit the political rights of the working masses. They were convinced of the necessity of more serious mass action by the solidarity of their Austrian comrades. Anyway, the material of Andrássy’s proposal was published in Népszava (People’s Voice, the central organ of the Hungarian workers’ movement) so that Andrássy no longer saw the point of concealing the content of his plan. In September and October a wave of protest and Socialist demonstrations were sweeping across the country, against which the policemen of Andrássy – who otherwise was known as a gentle, humane aristocrat, with a noble passion for arts – took the most brutal measures.

The Parliament’s Autumn session ended without Andrássy setting the proposal before it, and something other moved to the focus of public attention: in October 1908 the Monarchy annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina. The annexation enhanced Andrássy’s position for Francis Joseph. For Andrássy – alone among the leaders of the Coalition – opposed – on the basis of various political considerations – the annexation. Yet he didn’t openly criticise it only because the annexation had been a fait accompli. He didn’t want to inconvenience the leading exponents of Austro-Hungarian foreign policy. Francis Joseph felt that he is indebted to Andrássy for ignoring his opinion in the matters of foreign policy.

On 20. October Andrássy traveled to Vienna to obtain Francis Joseph’s preliminary approval for the proposal. He was worried because of the efforts of the circle of Francis Ferdinand. They wanted to convince the king, that if he accepted the plural vote, he would break his promises. They were also prepared for a hard fight with the king about the issue of secret ballot. Andrássy was convinced by his statistical researches, that he must reject even a partially secret ballot. But he was determined to resign his office, if the King insisted on this issue.6

At his audiences on 22 and 26 October, Andrássy presented to the king the purpose of his plan namely, the preservation of the political rule of the upper and middle classes, as the only way to ensure the survival of the Monarchy. For even if the dynasty could gain the support of the socialist working class for his case by the promise of democratic suffrage, this would be only a fragile and temporary alliance. Because its natural supporters were the upper classes, who were permeated by monarchist sentiment. He also made quite clear, that the Hungarian ruling- and middle classes’ loyalty to the dynasty remains in effect only until the dynasty doesn’t begin to defend his interests by an alliance with the non-Magyar nationalities.

The arguments of Andrássy were convincing for Francis Joseph. He understood that the policy proposed by Francis Ferdinand’s circle, and especially by Kristóffy, to play off the Socialists’ and the non-Magyar nationalities’ against the Coalition was not a viable course at all. But the king had other worries beside the secret ballot. Changing the arrangement of the electoral districts meant increasing the potential mandates of the Independence Party. Francis Joseph didn’t trust Andrássy’s promises about the “transformation” the softening of the stance of the Independence Party. He didn’t want to cooperate with a Parliament, dominated by the Independence Party, and he didn’t want to part with the weapon of blackmail by the threat of the imposing universal suffrage. Thus Andrássy – in return for the preliminary sanctioning of his plan, – had to guarantee the fusion of his own party with the Independence Party on the basis of the Compromise of 1867. He had to guarantee that the Independence Party would reject the idea of an independent Hungarian National Bank. He failed to obtain even the preliminary approval of his proposal about the rearrangement of electoral districts – presumably because of the influence of Archduke Francis Ferdinand.

After Francis Joseph accepted – with such restrictions – the proposal of Andrássy, the feeling of disillusionment dominated the progressive camp. Both the nationalities and the socialists pondered the possibility of boycotting the next election. For if the coalition held elections on the basis of plurality, then the participation of the socialist and the nationalities would be a mere fig leaf on the rule of the traditional parties.

The proposal was introduced in Parliament by Andrássy on 11 November. According to him the Coalition didn’t break his promises, because it took on only the universal, but not the equal franchise. Anyway, he never made any promise, if he believed it to be harmful for the country. He warned the conservative opponents of the proposal to consider the possibility, that in the case of the failure of the bill a later solution would be more radical. On the other hand, those who would like a more radical reform, should accept his proposal because if it fails, then perhaps no reform will be implemented at all.7

At the beginning of December, the inner antagonisms of the Coalition sharpened. In the Independence Party the movement for the independent Hungarian national bank received a new impulse. For the members of the Independence Party were afraid that after the passage of the plural vote, Andrássy would make Francis Joseph dissolve Parliament. In the new election Andrássy’s Constitutional Party would be strengthened, and their party would become a minority. Thus the Independence Party’s plan was to make a fusion with the Constitutional Party before passing the electoral bill on the basis of the idea of the independent national bank. Andrássy – who guaranteed to Francis Joseph just the opposite, the fusion on the basis of the Compromise – couldn’t assent to this.

At the same time the left wing of the Independence Party didn’t want an open struggle against Andrássy’s proposal. The militant wing of the party hoped that they would succeed in winning Ferenc Kossuth over to the cause of the independent bank. The Parliament – before the reform would have been discussed even in the preparatory parliamentary committee – postponed its sessions for a month.

In the meantime, Andrássy wanted to counterbalance the demand for an independent national bank with a new attempt to realise his own national program in the matters of the Army. He believed that the fulfilment of these national demands would be enough to win over the Independence Party to the fusion. He was helped by the common Minister of War, Baron von Schönaich, but their efforts ultimately failed because of the resistance of the leading Army circles and Archduke Francis Ferdinand.

At the beginning of 1909, Julius Justh, the leader of great influence on the left-wing of the Independence Party, took a new, more active political course. He gathered about himself the majority of the Independence Party under the slogan of the independent bank. Justh made clear to Andrássy that the party wouldn’t permit the passage of the plural proposal until there was agreement in the issue of the bank. Andrássy was convinced by the hard attitude of Justh and his group, that his proposal wouldn’t get the majority in parliament. At the same time Andrássy was more and more afraid that if the reform passed in Parliament, Francis Joseph would dissolve Parliament, and try in the new election to achieve a majority for a new Kristóffy-style party, willingly serving the interests of the dynasty. This danger was all the more threatening because Francis Joseph hadn’t sanctioned the rearrangement of the electoral districts, elaborated by Andrássy, thus the plurality in itself wouldn’t have guaranteed a Parliament reliable from the viewpoint of Magyar nationalism. And last but not least a new election without the fusion of the parties of the Coalition (which failed) might mean a new political defeat for the parties of the Compromise.

Thus, on 20 January 1909, Andrássy himself asked the emperor to allow him to set aside the plural proposal for an indefinite time, and Francis Joseph – although not willingly – accepted this. Now began the last period of the Coalition era, in which the problem of franchise was removed from the agenda, and instead the independent national bank and the military demands competed with each other. Such minimal national achievements would mean that the Coalition’s governmental activity was not a total failure. At the end of 1909 however, it turned out, that the Coalition couldn’t achieve this.

The failed attempt of introducing a system of plural vote in Hungary meant a failure of the Coalition. At the end, the Coalition had to leave its post without any notable achievement. However, this was a failure of the Hungarian progressives and the nationalities as well, whose protest couldn’t prevent the plural vote almost becoming law. And it was also the personal failure of Andrássy, who wanted to introduce an unusual system of franchise in Hungary, which corresponded neither the requirements of conservatism, nor those of progressivism.




Az 1906–1910-es Országgyűlés Irományai (Papers of the 1906–1910 Hungarian National Assembly) vol. XXVI. p. 930.


“Magyarország nem foederativ ország!” (Hungary is not a federal state!) Magyarország (the organ of the Holló group of the Independence Party) 1908. IX. 9.


The Political Diary of Count Gyula Andrássy the younger 1908–1913. London, Slavic Institute, Kónyi-Lónyai Papers, 1908. V. 21.


The Political Diary of Andrássy, 1908. III. 19.


A letter of József Szterényi (one of the leading politicians of the Coalition, and a member of Andrássy’s Party) to Andrássy. MOL (Hungarian National Archive) , P4. 281.


Andrássy’s letter to his wife, at X. 20, 1908. MOL P4. 370.


Képviselőházi Napló (The proceedings journals of the House of Representatives of the Hungarian National Assembly), vol. XXI. XI. 11. 1908.