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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 25:41–52.


Hungary: State, Political System and EU-Accession


On 1 May 2004, Hungary became a full member of the European Union. This meant a fundamental change compared to the previous periods of the history of the country, and opened new perspectives to its further development. Accession to the Union was prepared by a change of the political system and a series of social and economic transformations connected to it.

Statehood and sovereignty

Hungary achieved its full sovereignty after its defeat in World War I, with the disintegration of the Habsburg Monarchy. Simultaneously, however, the historical Hungarian Kingdom lost two-thirds of its previous territory and one half of its population due to the Trianon Peace Treaty. This was a major trauma for the entire Hungarian nation. The birth of new, sovereign states on the ruins of the empire was a natural consequence of the policy of earlier years and it conformed to the direction of the mainstream of social development. The subject of grievance was that the borders of the new nation-states were arbitrarily drawn by the victorious powers, without asking the population, totally disregarding the principle of national self-determination (with the exception of Burgenland). As a result, significant areas, completely inhabited by Hungarians, were allocated to the new states, condemning the Hungarian population, earlier belonging to the majority nation, to minority existence.

All this burdened the relationship of the Central European small states for decades and led to constant tension not only in foreign policy but also in the domestic one, further aggravated by nationalism and irredentism spurred also by the ruling circles. Though the Vienna Decision of 1940 somewhat corrected the original Peace Treaty, its price was that the country went to the sphere of power interests and under the total influence of Nazi Germany. The results of the Vienna Decisions were swept away by World War II. In the peace system after the war Hungary became part of the Soviet zone of influence in the divided Europe and its political and economic set-up was shaped accordingly. The status of the country became a semi-sovereign one (or a ‘satellite state’ in the usage of propaganda); it belonged to the alliance system of the Soviet power bloc for more than four decades. It possessed all criteria of autonomous statehood; at the same time it strongly depended on the Soviet power intentions in foreign policy as well as in the shaping of its domestic policy.

The partial modernization of the country during the state socialist period was carried out on the basis of a relatively homogenous Hungarian population – as one of the consequences of the newly-made borders –, with relatively less numerous, scattered national minorities, and without intensive contacts with Hungarians living beyond the borders. At the time of the system transformation in 1989, the case of the Hungarian national minorities across the borders came again to the fore, due to the Hungarian refugees fleeing from the Romanian Ceausescu regime and the Yugoslav crisis. At that time it re-emerged mostly as an issue of the rights of national minorities, and irredentist demands appeared mostly in extremist and marginal political circles that had no significant influence on public opinion or on official governmental policy. Nationalism, even if it is present as a political ideology, is not of the same penetrating force and it does not mean the same thing as before. The intention to preserve national identity may even grow stronger with our Union membership, but not against other nations, as something defined negatively, but dominantly as a positive program of the preservation of autonomous national statehood and culture.


Form of government

In 1989 the foundations of the new political system were laid down at the tripartite national roundtable talks, and the agreements were legislated by the last parliament of the state party, together with the new, basically amended Constitution of the country which suits the requirements of the democratic order and the rule of law. The new, democratic form of government, however, was fully developed only as a result of the parliament and government formed after the general elections of 1990.

According to the amended Constitution, Hungary is a republic, an independent democratic state based on the rule of law. The Constitution lays down the institutional order of the state, the rights and duties of citizens; it contains the legal foundation of the political institutions. The sovereignty of the people is worded in it, which is the legitimate basis of representative democracy. Further on, the division of power, the rule of law, citizens’ rights and the principles of human rights are stipulated in it. All the articles which had restricted people’s sovereignty and democratic freedoms were deleted from the amended Constitution. The earlier Constitution, passed in 1949, for instance, defined a one-party system whose leading force was the Communist party (under various names), and the form of the state was defined as a people’s republic. The Constitution followed the ideology of state socialism of Soviet type. The new, democratic Constitution, on the other hand, speaks about a republic without any attributive, and it is stipulates a multi-party democracy. In the spirit of the German Grundgesetz the parties, originally only social-political organizations, have been incorporated into the Constitution. They were defined as elements of the constitutional order, with the condition that no organization can claim exclusive power. Thus, political pluralism was given constitutional safeguards and the way to an attempt of returning to dictatorship was closed. An autonomous Constitutional Court, again along the German pattern, keeps watch over the spirit and letter of the Constitution, and the establishment of that Court was a significant achievement of the democratic change of the system.

Traditionally, Hungary is a centralized country of a unitary public administration. In addition to the special status capital city of two million inhabitants, there are nineteen counties that had been the depositories of local authority with major political weight up to the change of the system. The new Act on self-governance passed in 1990, however, significantly reduced the power of the county self-governments, and made the structure of local authority far more decentralized than before, without altering the centralized hierarchy of public administration. Its maintenance is guaranteed among others by the system of budgetary redistribution, as the local self-governments do not have sufficient resources to perform their extensive tasks.

During the past years the demand for evolving regional administrative units gradually gained ground. Territorial development policy and competition for the development resources of the Union make the shaping of autonomous regions plausible; however, heated conflicts of interests have been manifested in this issue. Finally, around the turn of the century a decision was made on the creation of 7 developmental regions, which are, for the time being, administrative developmental units and have no elected self-governments of their own. As the election of the self-governing organs of the regional territorial units would require the amendment of the Constitution, and thus, the two-thirds consensus of the decisive parties, the evolution of developmental regions towards having a real territorial self-government has been postponed for the time being.

The political system of the Third Republic

In Hungary it was the change of the political system in 1989–1990 that created the institutional basis of the constitutional, democratic state based on the rule of law. It was the semi-conscious, semi-spontaneous, unplanned process of the change of the system that opened the way to the restoration of the full sovereignty of the country and to the rearrangement of its international relations. During the past fifteen years the new democratic political system has been consolidated institutionally; its functioning is predictable, stable conditions for transformation into a market economy and to the structural transformation of the society have been created. As for the subjective acquirement of democratic achievements and of political culture the new democracy cannot yet be regarded as a consolidated one, as it is characterized by chronically weak legitimacy and fierce political struggles.

The new governmental system of Hungary is parliamentary democracy; the executive power is primarily in the hands of the government elected by the parliament. The head of state is the president of the republic, who is elected by parliament for a period of five years. His competencies are, however, very limited, and his power is rather symbolic; as opposed to the Prime Minister, whose position is strong, with a wide action radius. The institution of the constructive motion of censure makes the removal of government very difficult. In this sense the Hungarian governmental system is close to the German and Austrian type of “chancellor democracy”. The classical principle of the “separation of powers” is formally established: the legislation, the government responsible to parliament, and the judicial power (the Constitutional Court being the politically most important) operate autonomously and control each other. Further important constituents of democracy are the institutions of the free public and the system of decentralized self-governments.

The main actors of the democratic political process are the political parties. There is a multi-party system in operation in Hungary, though the concentration of the party system keeps on growing. Currently the representatives of only four parties have seats in the parliament, but the number of registered extra-parliamentary parties continues to be high. The forms of organized interest are in operation, and civil society has made serious development.

Some characteristic features of the change of system in Hungary

At the end of the eighties the official authorities in Hungary were searching a way out of the political blind alley. The lasting economic stagnation gradually eroded their social support, and there was a rising opposition movement challenging them. The opposition was to take on political shape due to a relatively liberal political atmosphere, and from 1988 on arranged itself into different political groupings that had evolved political pluralism already prior to the change of the system. The leading opposition parties and civic organizations formed the Opposition Roundtable, and its unified pressure forced the state party to begin with the national roundtable talks. As soon as an agreement could be reached on the cornerstones of the new political system, the unity of the opposition broke up–prior to the closing act of talks–, and a struggle for the occupation of the political space began, due to the approaching first free general elections.

The main purpose of the roundtable talks was bargaining about the conditions of a peaceful transition to democracy, together with shaping the outlines of the new political system in the spirit of constitutional engineering. Discussions on the amendment of the Constitution were in focus and some further important issues were the legalization of parties, the guarantees of peaceful transition and an act regulating free democratic elections. At the closing phase of the talks three parties did not sign the roundtable accord because of differences of opinion concerning the election of the president of the republic, but they did not use their veto power, either. The achievements of the accord that had entered into force were subsequently and continuously legislated upon by parliament. Upon the initiative of the four opposition parties a referendum was held on issues left open by the roundtable talks. The referendum brought the victory of the initiators, though with a margins only. The referendum, held in November, before the general elections, already indicated the changing mass mood, and justified the expectation that the majority of the electorate supported the change of system even if broad democratic mass movements were missing.

At the first free general elections (March 1990) twelve from among several dozens of registered parties were able to set up a national list and six of them could make their way into parliament. Such concentration of the party system was promoted by some specific traits of the election system. Firstly, there is the high threshold of entry – it was 4% at the first elections, and has been 5% since 1994 –, secondly, the parties had to collect supporting signatures in order to be included in the election list. Only those parties may set out for the parliamentary elections which can produce a national list. Finally, the election system is of a mixed nature, it is a combination of proportional and majority principles. Of the 386 mandates 176 MPs get elected from individual constituencies, and the rest from territorial and national party lists.

It was the emerging parties that were the main agents of political change, they participated in political programming and in the wording of alternatives right from the outset, and they encouraged and organized political life. The Hungarian party system reflects the moderate pluralism of the dominant parties. The emergence of the Hungarian parties was naturally influenced by the fact that political traditions were broken off during the four decades of communist rule. Initially they possessed neither the means of political mobilization, nor the organizational and financial conditions that usually characterize parties. The lack of articulation of the social structure did not favour the association of parties to the unambiguous representation of social groups either. Therefore the parties were not formed as mass parties but rather as elite or cadre parties with relatively small membership. Their level of organization is usually low, as it is a characteristic feature of all the multi-party systems emerging during transition from autocracy to democracy; the proportion of party membership of the electorate is not more than 2 to 3%. It is also true that social development has passed the phase of mass parties; in the age of mass media it is not party activists who are the main tools of political mobilization, but rather, it is the media through which politics reaches the electorate.

The big rival parties, capable of forming government, made efforts to become efficient electoral or popular parties. The Constitution states that “political parties may not exercise public power directly. Accordingly, no single party may exercise exclusive control of a government body”. As a consequence, a number of public authority positions have been declared incompatible with leading party offices. The judges and prosecutors cannot be members of any political party; public servants cannot take up party offices; parties cannot be organized in workplaces. The way of functioning and the economic affairs of parties are separately regulated by Act XXXIII of 1989.

In late 1991 the aggregate membership of parties was one quarter of a million, which is about 3% of the voting age population. Up to April 1990 65, and up to April 1998 221 parties had themselves registered, though meanwhile 36 parties were wound up or transformed into a civic organization. A party unable to set up candidates for two successive elections is automatically deleted from the register of parties.


The types of parties

The parties that have come into existence may be grouped various ways. The following grouping has emerged by affinity to ideological traditions:

– National Christian-conservative parties: Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), Independent Smallholders’ Party (FKGP);

– Liberal parties: Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), and the Alliance of Young Democrats (Fidesz);

– The former Hungarian Socialist Party is of socialist–social democratic orientation (the Social Democratic Party and the Workers’ Party (the new HSWP – MSZMP) may also be classified under this heading but they could not get into parliament).

Most of the extra-parliamentary parties, those that could not cross the threshold of entry, and parties that have emerged through splits from the parliamentary parties can be classified in one of these camps. There is, however, another kind of grouping by the origin of parties:

1. The historical parties that have significant historical traditions in Hungarian politics, such as the Independent Smallholders’ Party and the Christian Democratic People’s Party, the Social Democratic Party of Hungary and the Hungarian People’s Party. While these parties played a characteristic role at the time of the system change, they have all dropped out of parliament by now. In 1998 it was only the Independent Smallholders’ Party that could get into parliament, but by 2002 this party also sank into a grave crisis and could not repeat its earlier successes. It is an important feature of the development of Hungarian parties that the historical parties lost their weight with the passage of time.

2. The so-called “system-changing” parties constitute the second group. They were formed out of the intellectuals’ groups of “dissident thinking” in the late Kádár era. The Hungarian Democratic Forum, the Alliance of Free Democrats, and the Alliance of Young Democrats belong to this group. The 1990 elections brought along the success of the new parties: the three new parties together got more than 50% of votes cast for lists, and almost 40% in 1994. The Hungarian Democratic Forum among them experienced repeated splits, but it was only MIÉP (Hungarian Justice and Life Party) of the splinter parties that could get into parliament in 1998 (however, it dropped out in 2002).

3. The third group consists of the successor parties. The former state party, the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP) dissolved itself at its congress held in October 1989, and the reformers overcoming the conservatives founded the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP). It was a legal successor to the MSZMP (HSWP), inheriting part of the institutions and assets of the latter one, but it had to give an account of all that was taken over. Politically and organizationally, however, it was a new party with a democratic constitution, and with a significantly reduced membership, now based on free choice. The MSZP squeezed out the conservative forces of the old order from power, thus contributing significantly to a peaceful change of the system. It became one of the competing parties and though apparently it still possessed governing authority, it was profoundly weakened. Being branded as a successor party meant that it was pushed into a political quarantine in the first years. But at the next parliamentary elections, when different conflicts emerged, it became the strongest party in parliament and could even form the government twice since then.

The communist conservative forces, squeezed out of power, formed their new party only in December 1989, and named it Workers’ Party. The Party acknowledged the need for economic and political reforms but it idealized the Kádár-system and was unable to get rid of old dogmas. The Workers’ Party has not been able to cross the parliamentary threshold at any election.

In 2002 only four parties could enter parliament, it was the MSZP, the SZDSZ, and a joint list of Fidesz-MPP and MDF. (After distribution of the parliamentary mandates, MDF could form its autonomous faction.) It characterizes the dynamics of the concentration of the Hungarian party system that while the first and second-comers could acquire 46.1% of votes and 66.3% of mandates in 1990, the MSZP and the joint list of Fidesz and MDF altogether acquired as much as 83.12% of votes and almost 95% of mandates in 2002.

The main reason of the concentration of the party system is the specific features of the electoral system, which favours parties that collect the largest number of votes when the mandates are distributed. It corresponds to the consideration of governability but does not support proportionate representation. As a result, a party system of two big blocs evolved, with a people’s party and a small party capable of forming a coalition on both sides. For the time being no new parties could enter parliament. Of the extra-parliamentary parties it was only the Workers’ Party, MIÉP and the Centrum Party that have got close to the threshold, and MIÉP even succeeded in entering parliament and forming a faction in 1998.


The major institutions of the political system

1. Legislature. In Hungary parliamentary elections are held in every fourth year, when 386 MPs are elected for parliament. Of them 176 MPs obtain their mandates in individual constituencies based on the traditional territorial (individual) representation, whereas 210 MPs are elected by an aggregate of votes cast for the national and territorial party lists, or get their mandate from the compensation list built by an aggregate of the surplus votes. As individual candidates are usually nominated with the support of parties this means the realization of modern representation based on the party principle.

The Hungarian legislation consists of a single chamber. Its work is organized by the Speaker, the parliamentary factions and committees. Initially the parliament resembled the type of “debating house” but it has been increasingly moving in the direction of a working parliament. The parliament elects the major office-holders of the country. The person of the Prime Minister, appointed to form the government by the president of the republic, is voted for in a single act together with the voting over of the program of the government. The Parliament elects the constitutional judges, the president of the Supreme Court, the General Prosecutor, the president of the State Audit Office and the ombudsmen, as well as members of the boards of the public media. The Parliament has passed a large number of new Acts serving the introduction of the new conditions of market economy and of the society and politics. The process of constitution-making was also completed by the first freely elected legislature through the amendments of the constitution implemented on the basis of the pact between the two biggest parties, the MDF and the SZDSZ. The amendments intended to enhance the stability of the executive. An important closing act of the political transformation process was the Act on self-governance passed in 1990. The legislative process constitutes the major part of parliamentary work, though disputes on controlling the government by the opposition attract broader publicity. With the increasing significance of becoming a working parliament the focus of gravity of parliamentary activity is increasingly shifting to committee work.

2. The executive. According to the Constitution the president of the republic “represents the unity of the nation and monitors the democratic operation of the state”. This wording itself indicates that his authority is rather symbolic, and his person represents a kind of “moral branch of power”. His role, however, may grow in the case of a political stalemate, a crisis, or power vacuum. He is elected by the parliament for a term of five years, in the first two rounds of vote by a two-thirds majority is needed, but afterwards simple majority of votes is sufficient. While the competency of the head of state is precisely circumscribed, his activities are indispensable, as they are linked to the daily operation of state organization at several points. He authenticates the Acts by his signature, which means he may even veto them politically or constitutionally. He has an important role in the procedure of forming the government, as he appoints the potential Prime Minister. His outstanding task is related to the appointment of chief executive officers and it is his co-operation that lends legitimacy to several decisions of the head of government. On the other hand, his own decisions are also bound to consent by the government.

The term of the election of the head of state, differing from that of parliament may also result in a kind of political balancing and mediating role. The first President of the Republic of Hungary was Árpád Göncz, who was in office for ten years. Currently the President of the Republic is Ferenc Mádl whose first mandate expires in 2005.

Real authority and executive power are in the hands of the Prime Minister and his government. The 1990 agreement between MDF and SZDSZ resulted in modifications of the governmental system that approximate it to “chancellor democracy”. The intention behind this was to avoid ‘Weimarisation’ in the period of transformation laden with lots of uncertainties. A tool for stabilization was the introduction of the constructive motion of non-confidence, making the removal of the government difficult. A vote of censure against the government can be initiated only by one-fifth of the MPs, together with the naming of the proposed new prime minister. The withdrawal of confidence would mean the resignation of the entire government and a simultaneous inauguration of a new government. Therefore no situation can emerge in which the country is left without government – not even temporarily.

The second element of the chancellor model is the limitation of the responsibility of ministers to parliament. Parliament cannot call back ministers individually. The Prime Minister can make sovereign decisions about the composition of government and the destiny of ministers, he can appoint or relieve them. Thus the Prime Minister has a government and not the government has a Prime Minister. This element also serves the stability of the government and stresses the role of the Prime Minister.

A third element that strengthens the position of the Prime Minister is his right to draw up the program and determine the political guidelines of the government. This is not constrained by the coalition nature of the government either, except when some compromise is built in the coalition contract. Parliament votes on the person of the Prime Minister and on his submitted governmental program in one act; members of the government can be appointed only afterwards by the head of state upon the Prime Minister’s recommendation. This constitutional construct has presumably contributed to the fact that so far every Hungarian government has served its full term.

All governments so far have been coalition governments. The economic conditions undergoing transformation after the change of the political system and the polarizing social structure have produced a number of conflicts that the political system has not yet been able to fully process. While the acceptance of democracy is general, public confidence towards the main institutions of the political system is relatively low. Hungarian democracy has weathered the political-science test of consolidation so far as there was a sequence of the change of government by parliamentary elections. Now a higher level of consolidation would presuppose a government in office that would be capable of holding on to governance at least for two terms. That would, however, require a lasting development of the economy, a qualitative improvement of living conditions and public services, and signs of a so-called societal consolidation. Political culture, if compared to the social shocks accompanying the change of the system, is of a surprisingly low level. There are extremist manifestations, and even the signs of populism are strong, but despite the vehemence of political disputes and the low level of citizens’ confidence, Hungary can nevertheless be said to be a politically stable country. The stabilizing effect of external relations has had a significant role in it.


The rearrangement of interstate relations

The small Central European states faced an entirely new situation by the East and Central European transformation and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet bloc disintegrated already in 1989–1990, the CMEA and the Warsaw Pact gradually fell apart, and radically new economic and security policy challenges emerged. While the Central European countries regained their sovereignty, they got into a precarious situation regarding their external economic relations, for they lost their East European markets. Hungary responded to the new challenges by a rapid change of orientation of its external economy and by the transformation of its external relations. As far as external economy goes, the country completed the change it had begun earlier, shifting its foreign trade relations towards the West. By 2001 almost three-fourths of Hungary’s exports were directed to the European Union. And the Central European free trade agreements strove to settle its external economic relations with the partner countries of the region.

In the early 90s, in an increasingly uncertain international environment, the country strove to assert its security policy interests by its partnership for peace with the NATO. It participated in the regional co-operation of the countries of so-called Visegrád Group, and settled its bilateral relations with its neighbours by a series of treaties, and whenever it was possible, the protection of the Hungarian national minorities living across the borders was also included in those agreements. By the end of the decade Hungary also became a member of the NATO, together with the Czech Republic and Poland. It had its share in the peace-keeping activities of IFOR and KFOR, promoting the settlement at the West Balkan. It has been playing a role in the NATO mission in Afghanistan, and even in the Iraqi war of the United States, even if not by combatant units.

The country has been constantly striving to participate in the European process of integration ever since the change of the system. Hungary normalized its relations with the European Community already prior to the system transformation. The agreement on trade and co-operation, signed in 1988, envisaged a gradual dismantling of the quantitative limits on exports. The system transformation represented a qualitatively new phase in efforts towards integration. Hungary could participate in the PHARE program, which meant the restoration of trade free of discrimination, the removal of quantitative restrictions, and activities promoting the economy and the granting of loans.

In 1992 the European Union signed an association agreement with Hungary. It was the initial step of a closer integration. The European Commission raised the issue of a significant enlargement of the Union at the Maastricht Summit for the first time, and its criteria were worded at the 1993 Copenhagen Summit for countries of economies in transformation: the safeguards of democracy and the rule of law, the institutions of market economy and a relative competitiveness of the economy; further on the total adoption of Union legislation (acquis), representing the achievements of the EU so far accomplished. Hungary, knowing these preconditions, formally submitted its application for admission in 1994. After long preparations, including country reports and continuous monitoring, Agenda 2000 published a positive report on Hungary.

Thirty-one different Union negotiating Chapters were opened and gradually closed, the process lasting up to the end of 2002, to the next Copenhagen Summit. For Hungary the issues of free trade in arable land, the transformation of tax reductions granted to foreign investors into EU-conform regional support, the development of various agricultural quotas, and achieving proportionate representation in the bodies of the EU belonged to the delicate issues. Satisfactory compromises could be achieved in all of them, and in several other questions, such as environmental regulations. On a few issues the country was granted derogation, a transitory period for preparing a full implementation of Union legal regulations.

The Eastern enlargement of the European Union showed up several difficulties in comparison to the former enlargement waves, and it coincided with efforts aiming at deepening integration and evolving a political union. At the same time a special significance is accorded to the accession by the fact that enlargement eliminated the political division of Europe that existed since World War II. As the later Hungarian EU Commissioner, Péter Balázs put it: “at the moment of signing the Treaty the international status and assessment of the country were changed; the unavoidable state of exclusion and uncertainty we were kept in by the protracted process of EU negotiations for more than a decade came to an end.”

In 2003 the representatives of Hungary could participate in the discussions of the new European Convent, and could send observers to the European Parliament. After the accession a Hungarian commissioner could participate in the work of the Commission, and after the elections to the European Parliament on 13 June 2004, Hungary can delegate 24 representatives to the European Parliament. Hence the country’s full integration into the Union begins with 2004, which is a qualitatively new phase of Hungary’s return and adjustment to the Western world.