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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 22:171–185.


The Process of Political System Change in Hungary


Deepening Crisis, Emerging Opposition

By the 1980’s, Hungary was experiencing serious economic difficulties; negative economic indices were multiplying; a trap of debts was closing around the country and Western loans obtained for the modernization of the economy did not change the outdated economic mechanism. Neither productivity, nor the export of goods has improved. The unfavourable balance of trade and finances could only be handled by the acquisition of further loans. The standard of living, achieved at the time of economic growth, could be maintained only through an ever increasing foreign indebtedness. A looming social crisis also appeared on the horizon; previous standards of living for part of the population could be maintained only by self-exploitation. Indices of public health and of birth and death rates worsened; a chronic demographic decline became a reality.

However, the political leaders denied the facts of the crisis; they spoke of symptoms and exaggerated public consciousness of crisis but, in fact, general dissatisfaction was on the rise and disquiet was spreading among the population.

The formerly marginalized opposition to the regime now became more active. By the end of the 1980’s a new alternative elite emerged, strengthened by organizational and ideological affinities, one that was capable of becoming a competitor of the ruling party elites and force the latter into power sharing. This brought about a crisis of legitimacy which sooner or later was to make the complete transformation of the political system unavoidable, and it soon was to gain the support of the masses.

The deepening crisis resulted in a gradual clarification of aims and goals of the opposition and a true political pluralism began to emerge. In the process of seeking a way out of the crisis, the national democrats and the circles of the democratic opposition, those who “were thinking differently,” discovered each other. Intellectuals who were worried about the state of the country and were conscious of their social responsibility met at Monor for the first time in 1985 and discussed the conditions of the country. They voiced strong criticisms of the situation and sought a way out of the crisis. At the Monor conference all the important oppositional groups were represented, including the “generation of 1956,” (Ferenc Donáth and Miklós Vásárhelyi), the populist writers (Sándor Csoóri and István Csurka) and the democratic opposition (János Kis, János Kenedi and Miklós Szabó). They conferred with economic reformers, represented by Tamás Bauer and Mihály Laki.

The expanding limits of possibilities became known only gradually, but they were uneven and unequal in logic. After all, the existing order had still been in place and it retained and controlled all means of power and the limits of its toleration were not yet clear, nor were the influences of international factors widely known. In addition, declarations of programs by various political platforms were frequent. In 1986, a group of economists (László Antal, Lajos Bokros, István Csillag, László Lengyel and György Matolcsi) published their program, entitled Change and Reform. Their aim was to offer a solution for the economic crisis by advocating a transformation leading to the establishment of a market economy, which they considered to be the only alternative.

Political demands included emphasis on the need for the establishment of free unions, limited political pluralism and free, open, democratic public discussions. These proposals were widely debated at meetings held under the umbrella of the Patriotic People’s Front and – except of the issue of open public discussions – they were even officially published; this acted as a catalyst for further changes dealing with the proposed direction of the necessary transformation.

The democratic opposition showed liberal tendencies and adopted tactics developed by Adam Michnik in Poland. They did not openly proclaim their aim to be overthrow the existing regime; this would have meant a bloody conflict and would also have carried the danger of failure. Instead, they emphasized the need for the establishment of an autonomous civil society and limits on state powers in a democratic spirit, in order to create a state that observed human rights. These ideas were reflected in a program entitled Social Contract, issued by the editors of the semi-legal journal, Beszélő (Speaker), in the summer of 1987. They proclaimed openly for the first time that “Kádár must go,” implying that the old political elite must retire and a wide-ranging political transformation was necessary. The outlines of a new regime were presented in the form of a constitutionally limited “party-monarchy,” observing human rights, in which the Central Committee of the Hungarian [Communist] Socialist Workers Party (MSZMP) could play the role of an “upper house,” while the lower house would be elected by a free, universal, democratic franchise, and the latter would be responsible for enacting legislation. (The round-table discussions, conducted later in Poland, show similar constructions with the exception that the Communist Party was to have a guaranteed majority in the lower house. The free elections that were later held for the upper house were to bring an overwhelming victory for Solidarity.) During the following two years, the democratic opposition in Hungary has recognized the nature of the new situation and found new opportunities provided by it. Therefore, it became more radical and demanded a complete transformation of the political system, proposing a compromise in the form of a constitutional democratic parliament.

The populists exhibited special sensitivity to what they called the “vital issues of the Hungarian nation.” Their program centred on the total restoration of Hungarian sovereignty, responsibility for the fate of Hungarian minorities beyond state borders and the official recognition of total freedom of thought and literature. They did not issue a detailed program, but were the first to start a political organization. On September 27, 1987, they held a meeting over wide-ranging issues on the property of Sándor Lezsák under huge tents in which several reform-communists also participated. However, they did not invite the leadership of the ever more radicalized democratic opposition to the meeting. They created a political movement, democratic-nationalist in character, named it Hungarian Democratic Forum (Magyar Demokrata Fórum), and called for unity among progressive forces in the name of national unity. The proclamation of the new movement was published by the patron of the democratic opposition, Imre Pozsgay – at the time the first secretary of the Patriotic People’s Front, [a front organization of the communist party] – in its daily newspaper Magyar Nemzet.

In response, the leaders of the democratic opposition formed their own legal organization, the “Network of Free Initiatives” (Szabad Kezdeményezések Hálózata). This way, the first germs of Hungarian political party-formation appeared in the shape of movements organized in loose networks. Young students participating in movements organized in college divisions were the first to draw a radical conclusion, namely, that the organizations monopoly by the existing power must be broken and alternative political organizations must be established. Consequently, they created the Association of Young Democrats (FIDESZ) on March 30, 1988. (The bravery of the major organizers of the new association was shown by the fact that they were arrested and transported to the political police headquarters because there was no legal basis in the existing system for the organization of new political movements. However, they were soon released because of political pressure and fear of a scandal.) The law on associations did provide a legal avenue for the operations of social associations, but the status of political parties was not precisely established. Yet, an ever increasing wave of the formation of new political parties had begun in the second half of 1988. By the time Parliament enacted a new law of associations upon the recommendation of the government on January 10, 1989, political pluralism had already become an accomplished fact in Hungary.

By the autumn of 1989, the Association of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) was transformed into a political party and the Hungarian Democratic Forum followed its example. In the same year the historical parties also re-emerged; the Independent Smallholders Party, the Social Democratic Party and, after some delay, the Christian Democratic People’s Party, all reappeared. A pioneering role was played by trade unions and civil societies such as the Democratic Association of Scientific Workers, the Democratic League of Trade Unions (the latter to become well known during the following round-table discussions), the Independent Forum of Attorneys, the Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Association and other groups.

The revival and strengthening of associations of the opposition played an important role in making the public aware of the political crisis and the necessary transformation. During their activities they contradicted and destroyed the prejudiced explanations of the recent past offered by the party state and suggested new views about past history following 1956. They offered alternatives for the solution of the economic and political crisis and for a democratic transformation of the political system. They became the catalysts for the establishment of a multi-party democracy.

One of the important characteristics of the transformation of the Hungarian political system was that political plurality could emerge already before the actual changes had taken place, and the rule of the state party was not broken by a unified movement resembling a national front. This was due to the more liberal Hungarian political atmosphere and the internal transformation of the state party. At the end the state party dissolved itself in early October, 1989, and it created a Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP).

The fact was that the former state party, or MSZMP, itself experienced a deep crisis from the mid-1980s on. One reason for this was – in addition to the social and economic crisis – the aging leadership of the party. János Kádár and his close followers had been politically rigid and incapable of introducing the needed reforms and although they were willing to accept certain compromises, were unable to go the full length in introducing radical reforms. The party’s leaders obstructed the generation shift in the party organs at the time when such wide-ranging changes had already occurred in various spheres of social life. Reform minded politicians, such as Rezső Nyers and Imre Pozsgay were “parked” from time to time on the sidelines. However, internal struggles over the succession to Kádár brought the fight between reformers and conservatives into the open and their conflicts over the proposed political changes became public.

At the May, 1988 communist party conference János Kádár and his followers were ousted in a coup and this meant the end of the Kádár-regime that has lasted for 32 years. Károly Grósz had been elected new first secretary of the party and he simultaneously assumed the post of head of the Hungarian government. Grósz was a pragmatic party bureaucrat as far as economic reforms were concerned and he approved long-ranging reforms characteristic of a market-economy in the interest of the stabilization of the national economy. He accepted the necessity of changing property ownership relations. The so-called law on business associations (1988:VI) made it possible for the first time for state-owned companies to transform themselves into economic associations and this started a spontaneous process of privatization. However, since this process lacked public oversight, it opened the doors wide for the conversion of political into economic power; it resulted in the retention of wealth and power by the former economic and political elite. This was later sharply criticized, but contributed to the evolution of new structures of a market economy.

However, Grósz was a politically cautious conservative, who could envision only some sort of restricted pluralism. In November, 1988, he was forced to relinquish the leadership as prime minister to Miklós Németh – selected by himself as his successor – since the economic goals of the “program of consolidation” had remained unfulfilled. Grósz suffered a disastrous loss of prestige because of his meeting with the Romanian Ceausescu at Arad, where he was unsuccessful as far as desired improvements in the life of Hungarians living in Transylvania were concerned. As first secretary of the party, he spoke in the Sports Palace in Budapest in front of members of the party militia and other party members at the end of November where, in order to slow down the changes, he conjured up the dangers of a “white terror;” this was proof that he did not really understand the novelty of the unprecedented situation. In spite of his efforts, he was unable to suppress internal unrest in the party and the gradual dissolution of its organization. The offensive strategy by the reformist party leaders received internal support in a wide-ranging internal reform movement that began to emerge in 1988. At a meeting of reformists in Kecskemét in the spring of 1989, a split in the party became a possibility, but Imre Pozsgay was restrained by the uncertainty of the international situation. Rezső Nyers started a wide-ranging new fraction under the slogan of “New March Front,” in order to solve the crisis. Members left the MSZMP by the tens of thousands and simultaneous double memberships also became popular, induced by the entrance of masses of party members into the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF).

In the spring of 1988, Mihály Bihari, Zoltán Bíró, László Lengyel and Zoltán Király had been expelled from the MSZMP; however, in the new situation, the party could only escape forward. The memorable report of a committee headed by Pozsgay, charged with the examination of the historical past, stated that there was no counter-revolution in 1956 [as it was maintained for four decades by the Kádár regime], but a popular uprising occurred. This report started a new avalanche. It started devastating political quarrels within the MSZMP because it undermined the party’s historical legitimacy. The issue was discussed in the Central Committee; but instead of condemning Pozsgay, the meeting endorsed political pluralism and accepted the multi-party system. This was followed by the party’s abdication to meddle in the appointment of people to leading positions. The right of the various levels of party organs to appoint people to the nomenclature has been the most important means of the state party to maintain its dictatorship. Therefore, the decision clearly signalled the end of the one-party state. However, the final step had to wait for the party’s congress in October, which dissolved the MSZMP, and formed a new Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), made up by former members of the reform wing of the MSZMP. Members of the state party were “free” to enter the new party or remain outside it. In the course of the next few months, out of several hundred thousand former MSZMP members only about 40,000 decided to join the new party. The new MSZP no longer possessed state-party credentials; it had basically a social democratic constitution. Since the majority of the former party officials were relieved of their positions, the new party had a declining influence in the operations of the state. The ruling Németh government gradually liberated itself from control by the successor party; it was a government of experts and it became a decisive force for the change of the system. The MSZP was now simply one of many parties competing for influence in free elections.


National Round-Table Negotiations

About two weeks after the start of round-table discussions in Poland (on February 17, 1989), the Hungarian oppositional parties and associations greeted the acceptance of the multi-party system and political pluralism in Poland and recommended similar negotiations in Hungary to the leadership of the Communist party (MSZMP). They suggested that the focus should be on the division of powers and on guarantees for a peaceful transition to democracy. At first, the ruling party was reluctant to accept the proposal and would have liked to negotiate separately with each of the more important parties. The reason for this was that a public opinion survey showed that in free and democratic elections the MSZMP would have had a good chance to receive one-third of the votes, while the MDF would receive 13%, the SZDSZ 6% and the rest less than these two parties. On this basis, the ruling party had been convinced that it could succeed even in a free democratic competition among the parties. The survey also suggested that name-recognition was an important element and it could be a decisive factor in the competition for influence. Since the state party still possessed an almost complete monopoly over the various media, – in spite of the fact that its control of written media was slipping – it was time for the opposition parties to begin a struggle for the dissemination of their programs and for the acceptance of their demands for democracy.

In response to a proclamation by the Independent Forum of Jurists, the Round-Table of the Opposition (EKA) was established on March 22, 1989, with the intent of unifying the forces of the opposition. Early political pluralism, while it provided many advantages, also included the danger that the state party could divide and turn the various oppositional political organizations against each other by making separate concessions to some and denying them to others. However, the parties united in the Opposition Round Table (EKA) were aware of and recognized their common interests. The power of their unity was shown by the fact that, when the leader of the delegation of the MSZMP, György Fejti, wanted to exclude a member of EKA – to be exact, the FIDESZ – with the excuse that it was only a youth association, no one appeared for the scheduled meeting. Fejti was left alone with social associations closely allied with the MSZMP. These later became a third party at the negotiations.

In the meantime, the political atmosphere has fundamentally changed in the country. Demonstrations by the opposition multiplied, open disputes became more frequent and the media began reporting more and more often about the efforts of the opposition. Time was now getting closer to June 16, the appointed date for the reburial of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs of 1956, a date agreed upon by the government and the Committee on Historical Memories. This was a cathartic event, ending a decades-long historical amnesia and it was broadcasted on TV. Less than three weeks later, after Imre Nagy was officially rehabilitated and on July 6, János Kádár died. Tens of thousands attended the latter’s wake, and an entire age was buried with him.

These events provided the background for the round-table negotiations that began, after long discussions on June 13, 1989, and were conducted between the delegation of the state party and social organizations belonging to the “third side.” At stake were a peaceful transition to a parliamentary democracy and preparation of the outlines of a consensus-based new constitutional order. The consensus included the suspension of reform legislation by parliament (already at an advanced stage) and an agreement according to which the national legislative body should enact the pivotal laws without any change only after the conclusions of negotiations. The participation of the “third side” in the negotiations and the inclusion of economic issues in the round-table discussions were concession made by the EKA (the Oppositional Round Table), as were the negotiations without public participation. They also agreed that the concluding solemn act should be open to the public. In the end, the negotiations concerning economic and social matters did not bring about appropriate agreements. The EKA was not interested in these issues because it did not want to assume any responsibility for the threatening social and economic bankruptcy on the one hand, and on the other, wanted freedom later for enacting the necessary economic measures. The true stake at the negotiations was, therefore, coming to an agreement to create conditions for a peaceful political change and the establishment of foundations for a new political order. The negotiations were conducted by various sub-committees and concentrated on the following issues;

1. The modification of the constitution which included the definition of the form of the state [People’s Democracy or People’s Republic versus just plain Hungarian Republic], the system of governance and the system of civil rights for the citizens. Serious disagreements emerged over the proposed role and methods of election of the head of state. Agreement was finally reached, according to which the Hungarian state will be a parliamentary democracy, not a presidential one. The disputes around the latter centred on the issue of a weak presidency, the office holder to be chosen by direct elections and having strong legitimacy, and about and the timing of the election. The MSZMP preferred (in the interest of the political stability of the country) a weak president with strong legitimacy to be elected by the people even before parliamentary elections were to be held. However, the representatives of EKA were worried that a president of the republic, elected for the time of transition, would acquire a strong position similar to the Polish president and would distort the political competition at the expense of the opposition. The MDF, therefore, advanced the proposal that the first president should be elected by popular vote one time only. The dispute has continued throughout the negotiations and was one of the reasons for the delay of an agreement.

2. The legal regulation of the activities of the political parties. This was considered necessary because, following a dictatorship, it seemed necessary to create a neutral state (on the German model) and that the constitution should include guarantees against the establishment of a political monopoly.

3. The other issue concerned the creation of the laws for national elections. In view of the approaching free elections, this was one of the most exciting problems, because it forced the various parties to prove their support among the voters. The choice of the method of elections was, therefore, a risky business. The historical parties supported a proportional electoral system, that is, a system based on blocks of votes, while the SZDSZ and – for a different reason to be sure – the MSZMP also proposed a system based on individual electoral districts, or one in which majority votes would decide the winners. Finally, the currently existing mixed system was accepted at the proposal of the MDF, one that unifies the advantages and reduces the disadvantages of both proposals.

4. The regulations of practices concerning criminal justice and their principles had to be reviewed. This was necessary for the purpose of ending the criminalization of certain political activity, including the abolition of penalties for “excitement” and illegal crossing of the borders, as well as criminal penalties for political activity by any groups. At the same time, the violent conquest of state power was made a criminal act.

5. The issue of the openness of the public media was also considered. There was no agreement on these and disagreements later resulted in a “war” over the control of the media.

6. Guarantees for a peaceful transition also generated serious disagreements. There was no agreement about the supervision of the organs of state security and about the disarmament of the workers’ militia.

The negotiations were disrupted for a while by the MSZMP. However, the transformation within the party favouring the reformist wing, brought about a collective leadership of four persons (Imre Pozsgay, Rezső Nyers, Miklós Németh and Károly Grósz) and this resulted in the taking up of the negotiations under the leadership of Pozsgay.

The conclusion of the round-table negotiations was not free of dramatic events. The unity of the Opposition Round Table disintegrated. Five participating organizations concluded that, in spite of the continuing disagreements over some issues, the agreements already reached should not be jeopardized and wanted to close the negotiations. The FIDESZ, the SZDSZ and the Democratic League of Free Trade Unions, however, asserted that, as long as four important issues were unresolved, including the dissolution of the workers’ militia, the early election of the president of the republic, the accounting by the MSZMP over its properties, and the removal of party cells from the workplace, they could not agree to the compromises. Their solution was to openly declare their position concerning these issues on TV at the solemn closing ceremonies of the negotiations on September 18, 1989; they stated that they will not sign the agreements but would not veto the signing by the other parties and will not prevent their enactment. They also stated that they will begin collecting signatures for a public referendum for the resolution of the issues in question.

This was a sudden, unexpected change and it has been causing conflicting interpretations ever since. Some of the participants in the negotiations accused the “refusniks” of being free riders, while the leaders of the state party proclaimed them radicals incapable of compromise. The representatives of the Social Democratic Party signed the document with reservations and such a solution was available for the other two parties as well. The two liberal parties wanted, in all probability, to prevent the conclusion of a suspected pact between the MDF and the newly formed MSZP that would have resulted in the election of Imre Pozsgay to the presidency of the Republic and would have reduced their chances in the coming elections. Instead, they collected signatures in public places, intending to mobilize their voters for a referendum using the slogan that the “people” should decide the issues which could not be agreed upon by the round-table negotiations. Subsequently, resulting from the accelerating political changes, the “government of experts” headed by Miklós Németh, becoming increasingly independent of the successor party, managed to solve three of the open issues with the exception of the election of the president of the Republic, thus making some concession to the opposition. In spite of this, the public referendum was held as scheduled for the “four questions,” regardless of the fact that three of the original questions had already been resolved by parliamentary action. The MDF boycotted the referendum while the Social Democratic and the Smallholders parties eventually joined the protesters. The referendum passed by a minimal 6,101 votes in favour with 55% participation by the electorate.

The referendum was obviously a preliminary “sable rattling” before the election campaign and its originators considered it a measure of the power relations between the supporters and opponents of the old regime. Formerly little known parties achieved public exposure through it and their leaders could participate in the campaign leading up to the spring elections with nation-wide recognition. Undoubtedly, they were proved correct in instigating the referendum and this would be so even if they lost it through better tactics on the part of their opponents. At the same time, they had to pay a price for their success; by obstructing the solemn signing of the round-table agreement, they prevented its becoming the founding symbol for the new Hungarian Republic. This fact contributed to the weak legitimacy of the republic in the mind of the electorate. Of course, responsibility rests with both sides for missing a consensus.

Yet, the negotiations at the national round-table had been the most important instrument of peaceful transition. They created the legal outlines of the new system and during the discussions politicians emerged who were to become important figures in the process of transformation, including László Sólyom, József Antall, György Szabad, Péter Tölgyessy, Viktor Orbán and others. Yet in spite of its exceptional political significance, as a consequence of the disagreements, it could not achieve such a symbolic significance as comparable institutions did elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The necessary minimal consensus of the new order was unfortunately burdened by the early appearance of fierce competition of political parties, and the parallel nature of the two processes foreshadowed future conflicts within Hungarian democracy, instead of creating an understanding among the political protagonists.

The final judicial shape of the so-called fundamental laws, accepted during the round-table negotiations, had been crafted by officials of the Németh government and, as the crowning achievement of the reforms of the constitutional process, parliament quickly enacted them during the following weeks. The peculiar fact was that the last parliamentary session, considered illegitimate by the opposition, had laid the foundations of Hungarian parliamentary democracy.

The most important act was the enactment of the new, modified constitution by parliament. Hungary thus became a republic, without a preamble. The constitution guaranteed the rights of citizens, protected the multi-party system with guarantees and prohibited the establishment of central control and the monopoly of power by any single party. It set up a mixed economic system and proclaimed the equality of private property; it supported freedom of religion and of economic competition. It restored the primacy of parliament as representative of the people and ordered the creation of a government responsible to parliament. It established a Constitutional Court in order to ensure strict observation of the constitution, strengthening thereby the principle of the division of powers. At the same time, a law was enacted regulating the election of parliamentary deputies and modifying the criminal code in line with the recommendations of the round-table resolution. Paragraph No. 6 of the constitution created a National Office of the General Comptroller of Accounts.

The new constitution paid tribute to the memory of the Revolution of 1956 by becoming effective on October 23, 1989, and Mátyás Szűrös, as temporary president of parliament, proclaimed the establishment of the Hungarian Republic from the balcony of the House of Parliament.

As far as issues remaining unsettled in the round-table negations were concerned, the Németh-government submitted a law for the dissolution of the workers militia as well as Act no. XXXIII dealing with the activities of political parties, and both were enacted on October 30, 1989. The latter prohibited party activities in the workplace as illegal. The new MSZP created at the last congress of the MSZMP on October 7 and 8 started winding up its legacy, dismantled the party apparatuses and accounted for its properties. As far as the date for electing the President of the Republic was concerned, the referendum of “four yeses” had decided this issue together with the other three “yeses” which had become irrelevant in the meantime. Nevertheless, it served the purpose of emotional mobilization. The government recognized the result of the referendum and postponed the elections for the president after the first general elections. Since the respective question in the referendum did not define the method of the presidential election and dealt only with its timing, the last reform parliament enacted a law for the election of the president through a referendum, only to be annulled by the subsequent parliamentary session.


Preparations for the General Elections

The multiple events of the transformation of the political system were characterized by a series of reforms introduced by the Németh government on the one hand and preparations for the coming general elections on the other. The second Németh government, formed on May 10, 1989, which included the appointment of other reform-minded ministers such as Ferenc Glatz, László Békesi, Gyula Horn, made important decisions concerning internal and foreign policies. This raised strong echoes in national and international public opinion.

Among the important international initiatives was the opening of Hungary’s borders to the West for East German refugees and the beginning of negotiations for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country. Hungary also applied for admission to the Council of Europe. Among changes in internal policies, the easing of restrictions on foreign travel must be mentioned (by increasing the amount of foreign currencies that could be taken out of the country), improvements in educational policies, (abolition of compulsory of Russian language studies and the retraining of language teachers). The government also re-examined state policies toward religious denominations by abolishing previous restrictive orders. All the latter decisions were introduced by Minister of Education and Culture, Ferenc Glatz.

Preparations for the new constitution were speeded up by Minister of Justice Kálmán Kulcsár, who was also instrumental in introducing in parliament a new law on associations, providing the legal basis for the emerging political pluralism. In the economic sphere, thanks to the reforms of 1989 large scale privatization was taking place spontaneously in the country, generating a great deal of criticism. Public opinion was shocked by scandals, especially when corruption, touching on the former state party was uncovered. On the whole, however, the “Act on transformation” resulted in the rapid restoration of principles of private property followed by the emergence of private enterprise separating itself from the state-controlled economy.

The referendum of “four yeses” conducted in the fall became part of the election campaign which officially was to begin somewhat later, but the end of the year witnessed preparations for the coming political struggles. The so-called “Danube-gate” scandal was part and parcel of this process during which the opposition learned about the destruction of the files of state security organs. Investigations revealed that the state security organs – concerning which, unfortunately, no agreement was reached during the round-table negotiations – conducted further observations of the oppositional parties, providing information about them to the government and the MSZP, which was an open violation of the principles of free political competition. When the scandal broke, the Minister of the Interior, István Horváth, resigned. The scandal damaged the electoral chances of the socialist successor party seriously, at least as much as the fact that the entire East European “domino” fell by the end of the year. This event significantly reduced the MSZP’s merits earned by compromising and pushing for the transformation of the political system.

The electoral campaign was harsh and loud, since the new political parties had gained for the first time, an opportunity to publicize themselves and their goals amidst sharp political competition. The basic tone of the campaign soon became anti-communist, which was quite understandable after four decades of unrestricted communist rule. Besides the liberal and national democratic platforms, all sorts of previously forbidden political opinions, condemned earlier as “reactionary”, gained publicity, including often anachronistic “legitimist” [supporting former royal government] voices. The campaign was not free of political demagoguery and hysterics. The slogan for a “spring cleaning” appeared proposing a settlement of accounts and frightening a great many people. Fearing mass-firings on a political basis, professionals fled en mass from the governing institutions. József Antall had to exercise his considerable influence in order to end, or at least reduce, this tendency threatening the operations of the new government. Under existing conditions, an electoral slogan issued by the MDF about a “calm authority” influenced the masses of citizens who feared political reprisals and improved the electoral chances of the party. In spite of the sharp election campaign, no serious incident disrupted the process.

The first free parliamentary elections were held in two rounds, the first on March 22 and the second on April 8, 1990. Among the several dozens of registered parties only 12 had been able to run nation-wide lists of candidates and, as the result of the 4% curb for entrance to parliament, and only six parties gained parliamentary representation. After four decades of one-party rule, a real multi-party parliament came into being. The winner of the greatest number of representatives was the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF); it was able to form a government in coalition with the Smallholder- and the Christian Democratic People’s parties, possessing a total of 60% of all representatives. This meant a stable majority for the government but was insufficient for the amendment of the constitution. The operations of the new government were made considerably more difficult by the compromises and restrictions included in the agreements of the autumn of 1989.

The new parliament held its solemn inaugural meeting on May 2, 1990. The president of the parliamentary session of 1945-1947, Béla Varga, gave the opening address, signalling a return to the spirit of the Republic of 1946. The meeting elected Árpád Göncz president of parliament and he entrusted the formation of the new government to József Antall. There was an announcement of an agreement between the MDF and the largest party in opposition, the SZDSZ, for constitutional amendment. Since this agreement was concluded in negotiations to which the other rival parties (and even most of the leadership of their own organizations) were uninvited, it was widely criticized and the agreement became known by the somewhat pejorative notion of “MDF-SZDSZ pact.”

In order to gain stability for the governing process, previous agreements over the framework of public law had been significantly altered. The system of government was moved toward the Austrian and German systems, granting considerable powers to the head of government, limiting the responsibility of ministers and introducing a “principle of the motion of no-confidence” that made the removal of the government difficult. The status of the president of the Republic was also modified in the spirit of law No. 1, 1946. Accordingly, the president’s powers were reduced and the person was to be elected by parliament. Finally, the agreement reduced the number of parliamentary decisions requiring qualified two-third majorities. The concept of decrees with constitutional validity was abolished and it was precisely defined which acts continued to require two-third majorities of the representatives. The price of the compromise was the right granted to the largest oppositional party, the SZDSZ, to recommend the person for the presidency of the Republic and agreement was reached that the person should be Árpád Göncz. Another aspect of the compromise was a guarantee given by both parties, namely, that all media should be independent. This was to provide a source of conflict for the entire future period of the Republic.

Despite all the criticism of the pact (raised by the parties not participating in it), the agreements were necessary for providing conditions for a stable government under political conditions that were still unstable and promised a great many future conflicts. The new government faced tremendous challenges. The agreements of the two parties having the largest representation were gradually incorporated into laws by the new parliament. This process introduced the second phase of the constitutional engineering, adding new elements to the basic law.

The government headed by József Antall was sworn in on May 23 by parliament. The election of Árpád Göncz to the presidency of the Republic had to wait because a socialist representative, Zoltán Király, initiated a public referendum over the issue of electing the president by direct popular vote. Although the MSZP succeeded in obtaining the necessary number of votes for the referendum and it was indeed held, it was not valid because of low voter turnout. Consequently, parliament elected and installed Árpád Göncz in the office by a large majority; until then, however, he was acting as president of parliament only.


The Completion of the Constitutional Process

The summer of 1990 was loud of disputes over legislation. The deputies argued long over the new shield of the Republic, which ended with a majority vote for the arms of the nation with a small crown. The legal standing and the incompatibility principles and compensation of representatives were regulated. The modified constitution included greater emphasis on human rights, a definition of the rights of national minorities and the creation of the office of a parliamentary ombudsman.

The second round for the amendment of the constitution was concluded by the enactment of a set of laws for the operation of autonomous local governments. This also generated serious disagreements. Autonomous local governments became a right for all citizens; the constitutions stated that “citizens govern themselves by autonomous governments through representatives elected by them, and by elections to be conducted locally.” Local elections were held in the autumn of 1990 and over 3,000 communities formed autonomous institutions. The local councils had therefore been replaced by a system of decentralized autonomous governments. The decisive stage of the transformation of the political system was thereby concluded.

An important characteristic of the Hungarian transformation of the political system had been the fact that the decisive role was played by politicized, active elites and not by the masses of citizens. In the needed reforms of the legal code, this could not have happened otherwise. Yet, there was no mass pressure behind the political changes as it had happened in some other East European countries, where political pluralism was the result of the crystallization of mass movements. The difference was due partly to a somewhat more relaxed political culture in Hungary, and partly to the peculiar nature of the Kádár regime, that encouraged private citizenship in place of citizen participation in the political process. Naturally, “mass demonstration by smiling people” (Kukorelli), had indeed taken place, such as the one in Heroes’ Square against the destruction of villages in Romania, marches against building a dam on the Danube River at Nagymaros, or the ever larger masses marching in demonstrations on March 15 commemorating the outbreak of the Revolution of 1848. The reburial of the martyrs of 1956 had, however, a cathartic effect on June 16. It was broadcasted by television and represented the final demise of the legitimacy of the Kádár regime. It was also the preparation of public opinion for the coming unavoidable changes. Open political disputations and the dynamics of political reforms excited public opinion, informing the people that an age had finally come to an undisputable end and the outlines of a new world were being drawn. The old regime had reached a dead end and its lies about life lost whatever value they had. Ever widening circles of public opinion have come to support the change of the system, hoping that it would take place peacefully and that it would lead to a better future; but they did not possess a clear view of the nature of the coming changes, their directions and their social consequences. In fact, they could not gain such information from the disputes by various groups of the political elites either.

During the first phase of the transformation of the political system, the task was accomplished by the creation of a framework for the “techniques of freedom” and this process had an exceptionally liberating influence. People naturally expected that the creation of a Western-style political democracy would bring about not only political freedom but the liberation from social and economic miseries and ensure greater prosperity. Only a few people foresaw the sacrifices required for backing out of the dead end and returning to a market economy under conditions of a globalizing capitalist system, and the losses that this process entailed. Future social and economic conflicts accompanying the changes were as yet shrouded by happy ignorance and this undoubtedly made the completion of political change rapid and peaceful.

Naturally, the relative passivity of the masses was gladly accepted by the political elites. After all, this reduced the possible danger of the emergence of new forces from the mass movements who would reject the rules already developed by the elite groups (János Kiss). The political parties that were soon included in the new system considered the activities of the emerging civil societies as all too confusing and attempted to bring them under their control. They attempted to disarm, not to mobilize, the masses. However, this was to become part of the contradictions of the newly developed Hungarian democracy.