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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 9:215–229.


The Hungarian Political Elite in Transition, 1985–1990



There is no doubt about today’s Hungary: it is considered a consolidated democracy on its way to (Western) Europe. In the mid-1980s, however, things looked different when the country just started experimenting with gradual reforms. Western analysts thus wondered – with growing anxiety – on how far such reforms could go. Was the Hungarian régime just trying to stabilise its own power by initiating limited reforms or was it willing to tolerate far reaching changes?

At least in economic fields the Hungarian rulers proved to be – by socialist standards – surprisingly flexible in adjusting the country’s system to the exigencies of the world market. But it remained unpredictable how they would react in case of open defiance of the existing socialist rule. They still had the possibility – at least temporarily – to suppress democratisation by violent means. They did not. Rather they preferred to negotiate with the opposition and finally they renounced their power “voluntarily.“ It is an astonishing fact and a peculiarity of the Hungarian transition that all actors involved could always find peaceful solutions to their conflicts. Thus the question arises why and how this peaceful transition could take place. The aim of this paper is to explain the causes of the peaceful Hungarian transition.


1.1 Subject and methodology

In order to answer these questions the subject has to be narrowed down. Then the theoretical and methodological tools have to be presented. In this context it is to emphasise that this paper examines a part of the systemic change, namely the “phase of transition,“ that took place in Hungary between 1985 and 1990. Facts dating before this time are presented only if relevant for this analysis. 1985 is the starting point of this paper; it was the last “year of peace“ of the socialist system. In this year the 13th Congress of the HSWP1 took place. The results of this congress represented clearly the inability of the régime for profound reforms. They therefore symbolise the beginning of the systemic change. This analysis ends 1990, the year of the first free elections, which concluded the transition.

The present paper is a political analysis of the subject. Other factors, i.e. economic or social, are considered only if they have political impacts. This study is concretely based on following groups of theories:

Theories of systemic change2 examine the change of form of political rule, whereby they focus on the – peaceful – transition from authoritarian to democratic systems. There are principally two groups of meta-theories that are pre-eminent in this realm: system- and actor-approaches. The first ones explain the systemic change as a result of socio-economic changes (modernisation). The latter explain the transition to democracy as a result of the benefit maximising actions of political actors. The author of this study takes a mediating position and combines both system- and actor-approaches. Thus, several levels of analysis (macro, meso and micro) are taken into account, i.e. this study includes the change of structures as well as actions of individuals and groups.

Elite-theories3 assume that every society is divided by a power gap between rulers (élite) and the ruled (mass). In this context the élites are the important actors, because they make the politically relevant decisions. Thus, élite-theories explain who and what élites are and they show their functions. The author of the present study takes the position of democratic élite-theories by relying analytically on structural-functional theories. Democratic élite-theories are based on a value judgement in favour of democracy and therefore examine the “nature“ of élites in democratic system. The latter explain the change of élites by socio-political and functional elements; actually they represent a system-approach.

Thus the central perspective of this study can be summarised as follows: After a short description of the historical background the study analyses the democratic transition that has taken place between 1985 and 1990 in Hungary. Hereby special emphasis is put on the structural changes of the political system and the actions of the relevant actors (élites).


1.2 Historical Background

In Hungary a peculiar form of state socialism emerged relatively early. This country represented a special case in Eastern Europe: after the bloody suppression of the revolution of 1956 it developed in the shade of “big brother“ to the “merriest barrack in the camp.“ In concrete terms the Hungarian leadership came to the conclusion that it was not able to rule indefinitely against the will of the populace and therefore offered them the most generous possibilities of consumption in the Eastern Block in exchange for political abstinence. This strategy, called “goulash communism“ or “standard of living policy“ seemed to work: the Hungarians, eager to reap the benefits of the economical possibilities, withdrew into the realm of privacy, trying to maximise their private welfare by neglecting politics. However, the apparent success of this policy was based on hollow grounds: the régime had to “buy“ the social peace by using Western loans to subsidise consumer goods and to preserve the country’s outdated economic structures. From the mid-1970s onward this policy led to a steady expansion of the state expenditures, which got the country in to an increasing dependency upon its Western creditors. In turn for their generous credit lines the creditors demanded political concession like the observance of human rights. In the meantime the country also remained dependent on the USSR: on the one hand it covered the biggest part of the country’s needs of energy and raw material; on the other hand it was the main market for the goods – otherwise not sellable – of the Hungarian industry.

Hungary’s situation at the beginning of the 1980s best can be described with the term “double dependency.“ Coerced by this two-sided system of restrictions Budapest had to search a balance between the East and the West. Starting from this point the Hungarian leadership tried to establish the country as a “bridge“ between the blocks. In the beginning the USSR was suspicious of this policy, but after Michael Gorbachev‘s ascendance to power in 1985 the Soviet stand changed. The Eastern super-power tried itself to improve its relations with the West and pursued a policy of détente to foster inner reforms. This development led to a widening of the scope of the Hungarian (foreign) policy and further improved its relations with the West.

“Goulash communism“ represented actually a strategy of conflict avoidance and was based, as shown, on the principle of indemnifying the populace with material wealth for missing freedom. The success of this policy rested on a steady economic growth – but since the end of the 1970s the Hungarian economy was confronted with increasing problems. The growing scarcity of resources made the prospects of the “standard of living policy“ more and more dubious. It was therefore endangering the rule of the State Party. The leadership of the country reacted to this challenge in a double manner: on the one hand it tolerated the so called “second economy,“ from which the populace was able to draw income outside the official economy (“first economy“). On the other hand it liberalised and reformed the official sector. This liberal stance in economic matters was accompanied by relative tolerance in the realm of culture and politics. Thus the Hungarian people enjoyed the most generous travelling opportunities in the whole Eastern Block. Culture and science could develop relatively independently. These tendencies led to the gradual emergence of a so called “second society“ which drew its existence from the drawbacks of the “first society“ and which represented a “safety outlet“ that could compensate for the existing insufficiencies. By the mid-1980s two incompatible sets of codes of conduct existed in Hungary: whereas the rules of the planned economy persisted in the “first economy,“ free-enterprise behaviour became common in the “second economy.“ While the “first society“ was subdued to the socialist ideology, several subcultures flourished in the realm of the “second society.“ Both spheres were complementary to each other; neither could have existed without the other. But at the same time they were hindering each other’s functioning. The parallel existence of incompatible systems of behaviour for different spheres of society made consistent reform strategies impossible. Due to this fact the idea of the impossibility of changing the economy without political reforms gained ground in the circles of party reformers and the functional-élites. This realisation led them begin to foster democratic reforms.

As the replacement of the long-time Party leader János Kádár came closer, some of the successor candidates linked their career ambitions to reform postulates. At the 13th Party Congress of 1985 the elder, conservative forces prevailed over the younger reformers. But this result turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory: it made the systems’ inability to reform evident and the intelligentsia and the functional-élites turn away. A power struggle in the party began. An alliance of reform communists and radical reformers succeeded in 1988 to replace Kádár. His successor Károly Grósz, who already held the prime minister‘s office since 1987, tried to reform the system without calling in question the one party rule. But within the Party the radical reformers around Imre Pozsgay were pushing for more radical reforms. At the same time independent opposition groups were emerging and called for complete democratisation. Although the State Party was split by internal power struggles the opposition forces were not strong enough to oust the HSWP. Therefore, at the beginning of 1989 Hungary found itself in a double stalemate: within the Party there stood reformers against conservatives, outside there was the régime against the opposition. It was against this background that Imre Pozsgay, member of the HSWP’s Politburo and a radical reformer, brought to explosion a political bomb: he publicly declared on January 29, 1989, that the events of 1956 did not represent a counter-revolution but a national uprising in the proper sense of the word. By doing so he destroyed the base of the socialist rule, because until then the HSWP legitimised its rule with the assertion of having saved the “achievements of socialism“ in 1956. As a consequence of this announcement, the HSWP was forced to renounce its constitutional role of leadership and it had to accept the introduction of a multi-party system. These developments paved the way for negotiations between the régime and the opposition. After much quarrelling the so called National Round Table Talks (NRTT)4 began. Supposed to deal with the transition to democracy, they lasted the whole summer. They were concluded on September 18 with an agreement that laid down the principles of democratisation. The results of this treaty had to be sanctioned by the existing – socialist – parliament. Thus the Hungarian transition took place “smoothly“ within constitutional limits.

The first free parliamentary elections in spring 1990 caused a heavy defeat for the former state party and made it possible for a coalition of centre and right parties to form a new government under József Antall. Being politically inexperienced, the new rulers committed numerous mistakes. Meanwhile spiteful quarrelling took place among the political élite, taking the form of a Kulturkampf. For outside observers the intensity of these conflicts were hard to comprehend.5

Change of the power- and élite-structure in the communist system

The Hungarian transition to democracy developed peacefully and rather smoothly. The following section is intended to prove that this remarkable fact was possible only because there was a radical change within the ruling class well before the systemic change actually took place. This preceding change was made possible because actors with convertible knowledge came to power: they did not need political protection and thus they did not have to fear any – otherwise heavy – loss of their status in the course of the systemic change. Ultimately, the transformation of the ruling class can be attributed to the fact that since 1956 the political élites of Hungary went through a learning process which helped them to develop peaceful means of conflict resolution and which at last made possible an élite settlement.

One of the main conditions of totalitarian rule was always the control of practically all parts of public life. This in turn required a highly organised bureaucracy. In Hungary control was assured by assigning a parallel party structure to every social, political and economic structure. This parallelism has never been codified by law but derived from the – constitutionally guaranteed – leading rule of the Party. The HSWP’s claim to rule could only be realised by controlling any strategic recruitment of the country’s leadership. All important positions were laid down in so called “nomenclature lists.“6 Appointments to any of these posts depended on the party’s consent. At the end of the 1960s, when communist rule was most pronounced, the nomenclature list of Central Committee consisted of some 3’500 positions.7 Although this number was subsequently on the decrease, still the assignment to any major post remained under control of the Party. This “over- politicisation“ lead to a negative selection, since political loyalty was deemed more important than professional qualification.

From the early 1950s – as Iván Illés shows – a good part of the élite was recruited among persons in their twenties.8 Since they entered relatively young into high ranking positions there was no further possibility for their promotion. On the contrary, this ruling class build an obstacle for younger forces to promote into their ranks. This constellation ultimately blocked the élite circulation during a whole generation and led to a growing need for massive changes in personnel: in the mid-1980s a good part of the office-holder reached the retirement age.

Taking the nomenclature as a whole, i.e. persons holding nomenclature positions, this trend is hard to detect: the share of persons aged over 50 years just fell between 1983 and 1987 from 53 % to 47 %, whereas the share of the 40 – 49 years old grew from 31 % to 38 %. The share of the persons aged under 40 stagnated.9 These numbers seem to falsify Illés’ thesis of a massive need for change of leading personnel. Still, they point at another important problem: as the 13th Party Congress showed, the numerically superior block of elderly conservatives prevailed over the younger reformers. No radical reform steps were decided, which presumably would have caused a major change in staff. Frustrated by the victory of the conservative forces, the generation of young reformers lost its faith in the reformability of the system and began to look for new options. The basis for the systemic change was laid.

Since the early 1960s the Kádár régime was striving for reconciliation with the Hungarian people. This process let the systems’ responsivity to the people’s needs grow steadily. The re-formulation of communist policy diminished the predominance of politics and opened room for other sub-systems to emancipate themselves. These sub-systems started to set up their own functional coding and to function accordingly (functional differentiation).

In order to prove the impact of functional differentiation on the Hungarian leading class, it must be shown that a qualitative change has taken place in this group. In this context school qualification may serve as an indicator for professional skills. Table 1 shows that within the Hungarian élite the share of university and college graduates rose considerably between 1973 and 1983.


Table 1


Qualification of the Hungarian élite (in %)10




University degree



High school degree



Primary school






To lighten this argument a more detailed analysis of the élite professionalization is needed since the different élite groups developed very differently. For instance, the evolution of the party-élite was very different from the one of the state-élite and the economic-élite, respectively. Recruiting their élite, Communist parties in general tended to discriminate members of the intelligentsia. Contrary to this, the “standard of living policy“ and the “new economic mechanism,“ introduced in 1968, soon changed the requirements for recruitment of the economic-élite, followed by the state-élite. During the 1970s the rotation in both groups was about 9.3 %. This rate accelerated rapidly during the next decade: more than 70 % of all positions were newly occupied. Obviously, qualification played in these spheres a pre-eminent role for recruitment.11 (Persons with higher school degrees clearly began to dominate in both groups as can be seen in table 2.)


Table 2


Sociological features of state and economic-élite (in %)

Sociological features








High school or university degree





Knowledge of foreign languages





Continuing qualified work*





Convertible knowledge*





* Continuing qualified work means that a person occupied only such functions during his/her entire professional life that required a high school or university degree; convertible knowledge means that a person would be competitive on free market, and therefore does not need the party’s protection.

Source: Gazsó (1993), p. 20.


There is certain logic behind the fact that the share of intelligentsia members not only started to increase first within these two groups but also that it was pronounced most prominently within these groups. They built the functional élites – in fact a crucial momentum for the functioning of the whole system: the economic-élite had to provide the economic basis for the “standard of living policy,“ and the state-élite had to ensure civil service. In the 1960s the willingness of the intelligentsia to hold élite positions was due to a general euphoria: These élites believed to be able to reform the system from within. But their professional skills correlated negatively with their decision-making competence since the dominance of the party-élite remained unchanged. This situation led to a breach between state and economic-élite on the one side and the party-élite on the other side. The intelligentsia gave up its wish to reform the HSWP – and thereby indirectly the society. Instead, it strived for complete independence in its own fields of activity. In concrete terms, the economic-élite did not accept the existing power sharing with the Party anymore, it asked for the ownership of the companies. But also the state-élite began to free itself from party tutelage. The state-élite’s emancipation started later than in the economic sphere but it was concluded earlier – already under Grósz and Németh.

In the meantime within the party-élite the share of persons with either university or high school degree did also increase from 60.3 % to 84.9 %. Still, this could not be interpreted automatically as an improvement of qualification. On the contrary: it was mainly due to an intra-generation mobility, meaning that members of the party-élite were given the opportunity to acquire university or high school degrees at the Party‘s own universities. The value of such degrees was more than doubtful and only represented a formal qualification. A look at the party-élite’s recruitment base shows clearly the persisting adversity for the intelligentsia (see table 3).


Table 3


Recruitment base of the party-élite (in %)

Original profession












Member of intelligentsia















Source: Gazsó (1993), p. 18


The ideological principle of preferring the “worker cadres“ persisted until the end within the Party. Thus the intelligentsia’s share in the party-élite only rose slowly and with a considerable delay compared to the economic-élite and the state-élite. As a consequence, the qualification gap between these élites widened. (See table 4)

Evidently the Party’s leadership was better qualified than its base. The recruitment of intelligentsia members had the strongest impacts on the Party’s sub-élite, and the weakest on its base. The change of the recruitment policy led to differentiation process and decreased the homogeneity of the party-élite. In turn, conflicts of interest within the Party grew sharper because young and highly qualified cadres who entered the party-élite had a technocratic orientation and were open toward reforms.


Table 4


Sociological features of the party-élite in 1985 (in %)

Sociological features

(PB and CC)*

(central apparatus)

(executive bureaucracy)

High school or university degree




Knowledge of foreign languages




Continuing qualified work




Convertible knowledge




Source: Gazsó (1993), p. 19.    * PB: Politburo; CC: Central Committee.


In comparison, differences between the three élites observed (party-, state-, and economic-élite) are biggest at in the factor “convertible knowledge.“ This factor indicates a person’s ability to find an adequate job in a free economy with no need of party protection. In other words, the “opportunity costs“ of changing the job are lower for persons with “convertible knowledge.“ Such persons are able to switch to private economy: they do not have to protect their positions by all means. In some cases they may even profit from a systemic change because their skills are esteemed rather in a market economy than in a socialist system. It is striking that the percentage of persons with convertible knowledge was highest within the state-élite. The economic-élite followed with 50 %, compared to only one third of the party-élite. This fact points at the main line of conflict: whereas the party-élite was split up on reforms, the state-élite in peculiar, but also the whole (first and second) economy took a more reformist stance. Since it was especially the base of the party-élite that could lose most in such a process, opposition to any reforms was biggest in this sub-group.

Until the mid-1980s radical opponents of the system, the so called Democratic Opposition, were insignificant. They could not really be called a counter-élite. Only after the economic situation aggravated they could raise some attention. Since most persons entering élite positions in this time came from the Budapest universities they did not differ from the rest of the intelligentsia. Due to their socialisation they had a resembling set of values and – not surprisingly – these new élite members had good connections to the rest of the intelligentsia as well as to the radical opposition. But it was only after the 13th Congress of the HSWP that these groups began to co-operate on a rather informal basis.

The Hungarian élite in Transition

Developments that could be observed from the beginning of the 1980 s onwards got more pronounced in the second half of the decade. As already shown, the party leadership got more and more heterogeneous, since the intelligentsia’s share rose at the cost of the workers. This trend could also be observed for the whole party: every third member of the intelligentsia was also member of the HSWP.

In economics, Hungary pursued an austerity policy since the beginning of the 1980s. The architects of this policy – dubbed Reform Economists or the New Technocracy – sat at the steering wheel of economy: they held high positions in the ministry of finance, in the National Bank and also in Central Committee’s department of economy. As disciples of neo-liberal concepts they wanted to free the economy from state interventions. But the 13th Party Congress’ economic program, called “acceleration,“ intended to soften this austerity, this would have endangered the country’s credibility and the reforms, the group of Reform Economists wanted to prevent such a policy. Therefore, they published a thesis paper titled “Turning Point and Reform“12 in which they put forward the necessary measures of economic reform. Because the political dominance was hindering functional differentiation of the subsystems (and especially the economy), they concluded that a profound reform of the whole system was needed: “An economic reform is impossible without political reforms.“13

The Reform Economists offered their paper to different party organs, but it was much too far-reaching even for the most progressive reformers. Therefore it had to be published indirectly in some semi-official magazine. It sealed the defection of the Reform Economists from the one-party-state. Nevertheless, the authors remained in their position because they were functionally unreplaceable. Thus they became the inner opposition of the élite. At the same time also the Reform Intelligentsia distanced itself from the régime. It articulated its critique in “scientific“ terms, which served as a pretext to denounce the régime’s lack of legitimacy. Actually, these two discourses were complementary: One side offered the economic analysis, the other the philosophical one: a perfect sharing of tasks. Both of these groups were interested in liberalising the power structures. So they began to co-operate.

The New Technocrats and the Reform Intelligentsia both operated within the legal frames of the system, whereas the Democratic Opposition broke completely with the régime. Its demands were not principally different from the ones of the former’s, but they were more radical. Between these different groups a work division arrangement emerged: the Democratic Opposition attacked the régime directly, the Reform Intelligentsia took up its demands in the academic discourses, and the New Technocrats finally tried to change policy from within the régime.

In the core-élite the reformers were struggling for power with the conservatives. On the progressive side Grósz and Pozsgay were the main actors. Within the élite they relied on the New Technocrats. Because this group was gaining ground, the two politicians were able to foster their influence. Between 1985 and 1987 there was no political alternative outside the HSWP. Until then the public was not yet mobilised although the enduring economic crisis let the people’s discontent grow steadily. Oppositional groups, previously with no influence, got more and more popular. In May 1988, Grósz and Pozsgay were able to oust Kádár at the Special Congress of the HSWP, which rendered their alliance obsolete. Soon they started to struggle against each other. In this process Grósz represented the conservative and Pozsgay the reformist pole. Grósz power base was built upon those 70 % of the party-élite who did not possess convertible knowledge – and therefore were not heading for real reforms. The followers of Pozsgay represented a more heterogeneous, but also a more dynamic group: Reform Intelligentsia, New Technocrats and parts of the moderate opposition. None of the opponents dared to split up publicly because their respective strength was unknown. Grósz had more influence in the army and in the Workers Militia, but Pozsgay enjoyed more popularity. Also were his followers functionally irreplaceable.

This inner-party power struggle limited the Party’s capacity to act. Still, the functioning of the state had to be ensured. The state-élite could profit by this situation the most and freed itself from party tutelage. Also the economic-élite was able to enhance its range of action, although it could not emancipate itself totally, because the ownership rights remained in the hands of the HSWP. Still, the gradual emancipation of these two élite groups initiated a ever increasing spiral: by enhancing their range of action they weakened the State Party, thus further enhancing their own liberty.

The opposition could also profit by this situation: during the year 1988 it was able to determine the agenda setting and to push the régime on the defensive. The opposition made itself known to everybody by raining issues such as the ecological protest against the project of a hydro-electric power plant at Gabcikovo-Nagymaros, the problem of the Hungarian Minorities abroad, or the question of the legitimate representation of the country’s history. A historic moment was reached on September 3, 1988: the Hungarian Democratic Forum (HDF) openly declared itself a party. Others followed suit: within a short time literally hundreds of new parties and organisations came into existence. However, their respective bases remained uncertain, because their activists were recruited among “well known, but politically inexperienced exponents of the Reform Intelligentsia such as writers, social scientists and non-conformist technocrats“ on the one side, and “local dignitaries such as intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, teachers and so forth“14 on the other side. Although the opposition seemed to gain weight rapidly, its real strength could not be determined.

Meanwhile, Grósz resigned from his post as prime minister, but he remained secretary general of the HSWP. As his successor he appointed the young and politically unknown Reform Economist Miklós Németh. Grósz believed being able to master Németh from the background. But Németh, well acquainted with the problems of the Hungarian economy, supported radical reforms. It was under Németh that the process of the government’s emancipation from Party tutelage, already started by Grósz, was pushed forward most vigorously and finally completed.

From mid-1988 two parallel developments could be observed: The HSWP was steadily weakened while the opposition could gain strength continuously. With the “democracy package“ (demokrácia csomagterv)15 the régime committed itself to complete democratisation within two years. But major questions on how the democratic system should be shaped concretely remained extremely contested. The State Party still controlled the instruments of power, but in the meantime the opposition proved its capability to mobilise the masses. None of the actors was able to force its concepts upon the others. A double stalemate – between conservatives and reformers on one side and régime and opposition on the other – resulted, causing a power vacuum. The government tried to fill it by pushing the country towards market economy and democracy. It was the government’s goal to render the reforms irreversible by formally legalising them.16 But Prime Minister Németh had a difficult stance: his power base was the New Technocracy that pursued similar goals as the radical party reformers. Ideologically, Németh was closer to the opposition than to the conservative wing of the HSWP. As a consequence, Németh’s government found itself in a very dilemma: although its autonomy from the HSWP was steadily growing, in the eyes of the opposition it was still too dependent on the State Party.17 While the structures of the one-party-state were collapsing and the economic crisis was aggravating the government could not do much more than “crisis management“ in order the maintain the country’s functioning. The whole country was virtually deadlocked.

In the winter of 1988/89 it became evident that only negotiations between régime and opposition could end the political stalemate. During several months there was a tug of war on the terms of the talks to be held. Finally, in June 1989 negotiations on the complete democratisation started between the HSWP and the opposition (NRTT). The government however did not take part directly, but it was obliged – as agreed before by the negotiating parties – to sanction all results of the talks by passing them in the parliament. Politically important decisions were made at the NRT. Thus the real rulers of the country were the participants of the talks: Hungary’s new political élite was born at that place.

Those who participated at the NRTT formed the new élite. Therefore it is important to examine, who were actually the negotiating partners. On the one side it was the party-élite, by now dominated by reformers. On the other side it was the Opposition’s Round Table (Ellenzéki Kerekasztal – ORT), a rather loose alliance of nine organisations. Whereas the party-élite needs no further explanation, the composition of the ORT needs closer examination. By founding the ORT some groups monopolised the opposition’s representation. Only those who were admitted to this “club“ were able to become negotiating partners. The criteria of admission seemed to be accidental and arbitrary. Evidently, the oldest and best known opposition groups such as the HDF, the Alliance of Free Democrats, and the Alliance of Young Democrats were represented at the ORT. However, the presence of other groups is more difficult to explain.

Another interesting fact was the exclusion of the government from the talks. The ORT only wanted to deal with “those having power,“ therefore only the representatives of the HSWP were accepted as negotiating partners. As a direct consequence, this strengthened the HSWP because the party now was the sole representative of the régime. The most common explanation for the opposition’s refusal to negotiate with the government is that the real power still lay in the hands of the party (misconception). Others try to explain this by attributing quasi-Machiavellian malevolence to the opposition.18 In my view both explanations are insufficient, although the misconception hypothesis may claim some plausibility. The government was successful in creating its own technocratic image and in pursuing such a policy. The successful emancipation of the government from the State Party led to a depolitization of the government: it became an administration (organ of crisis management). While the government had to ensure the country’s functioning, “politicians“ were deciding on questions of power. Thus, in some sense there was a functional differentiation: the spheres of “administration“ were separated from “politics.“

The selecting criteria of the negotiating partners may not be completely explained. Nevertheless some sociological features of the actors can be shown. The reformers, that by now controlled the party, were mostly members of the intelligentsia. The oppositional groups originated from similar intellectual circles. Due to this fact some observers blamed the intelligentsia for having redistributed the power, without any participation of the populace.

The NRTT represented a transitory solution. In a situation in which neither the strength nor the legitimacy of the individual groups contending for power was known they were intended to find a peaceful way out of the stalemate. In other words, they served to prepare free and fair elections. As this goal was attained on September 18, 1989, the NRT became obsolete.

Following this the power vacuum still persisted until the elections in March/April 1990. Although the government was securing the country’s functioning, it was not able to purse an independent policy. The HSWP was dissolved, and its successor, the HSP, was only able to attract a small part of the Party members. The NRT was also dissolved, and the parties began campaigning. Concurrence replaced co-operation, and the situation grew more and more confusing. Only the elections brought relief to the over-heated political discussion. They stabilised the party system and installed democracy.



The developments that led to the systemic change may be demonstrated quite plausibly. The collapse of the communist system and the democratic transition happened in such a short time, that no – new – structures could evolve. The main feature of this period was uncertainty. The government was able to establish itself as the country’s power centre, as long as the stalemate between State Party and opposition persisted. But its influence was driven back, as a political solution was found. The representatives of the HSWP and the opposition, all of them belonging to intelligentsia, negotiated the peaceful transition at the NRTT. After the conclusion of these talks, from September 1989 until spring 1990, the country had no actual power centre, but only an administrative crisis management organ (government). The country was politically, but not structurally, anarchical. Those actors, who participated at NRT, emerged as the country’s new political-élite. As shown above they represented a new generation of politicians. It can be stated that the élite had already changed almost completely before the conclusion of the transition. And it was this élite change, which made peaceful transition possible.




The Hungarian state party changed its name quite often. In the first post-war years it was called Hungarian Communist Party, from 1948 Hungarian Workers Party, from 1956 Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (HSWP). The party was dissolved in 1989. At its place the Hungarian Socialist Party (HSP) was founded, from which the orthodox faction split up and re-founded the HSWP.


See Zoltán Tibor Pállinger: “Der Umbruch in Osteuropa und die Theorien des Sytemwechsels,” Beiträge Forschungsstelle für Internationale Beziehung ETHZ, no. 10, June 1997c.


See Zoltán Tibor Pállinger: “Eliteforschung – Ein Überblick,” Beiträge und Berichte Institut für Politikwissenschaft HSG, no. 258, 1997a.


Actually, these talks were called “tripartite talks”, but nowadays it is common to call them NRT. The body itself was called National Round Table (NRT). On this subject, see Pállinger (1997b), p. 192.


Some of the Hungarian commentators went as far, as to depict the first post-communist government being dangerous for democracy. See Attila Ágh: “From Nomenclatura to Clientura: The Emergence of New Political Elites in East and Central Europe.” Budapest Papers on Democratic Transition, no. 68, 1993.


These lists existed from March 29, 1950, until May 8, 1989. Nowadays they are accessible on CD-ROM, see András Nyirő and István Szakadat (eds.): Politika. Magyarország, Aula Kiadó, Budapest 1993 [CD-ROM].


Actually, the party rule was more pronounced, because there were many other nomenclature lists besides of the Central Committee’s. In fact, every important position – from the point of view of HSWP – fell under the party’s control.


Iván Illés: Nemzedékek, elitek, ciklusok, Közgazdasági és Jogi Könyvkiadó, Budapest 1991, p. 39.


István Harcsa: “A közelmúlt hatalmi elitjének főbb csoportjai,” Statisztikai Szemle, vol. 71, no. 2, 1993, p. 101–117.


Source: István Vida: “Az állami-politikai vezető réteg összetétele az 1980-as évek elején.” Előadások a Történettudományi Intézetben, no. 18, 1992, p. 8.


See Ferenc Gazsó: “Elitvátás Magyarországon.” Társadalmi Szemle, vol. 48, no. 5, p. 16-26.


László Antal et al.: “Fordulat és Reform.” Medvetánc, no. 2, 1987, supplement.




Rudolf L. Tõkés: “Az új magyar politikai elit.” Valóság, no. 12, 1990, p. 1-13.


The parliament instructed the government to draw a plan for complete democratisation. This plan contained concrete legal measures and a time schedule for the necessary steps. See, Pállinger (1997c), pp. 178-180.


Kálmán Kulcsár: Két világ között. Rendszerváltás Magyarországon. 1988–1990, Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest 1994, p. 101.


This assumption was not completely wrong because the government’s leading persons (Németh, Pozsgay and Nyers) also took part in the HSWP’s leading organs. The government became formally independent on May 10, 1989, when Németh was able to oust the conservative ministers.


Kulcsár (1994), p. 144.


* This article summarises the results of a more comprehensive study which examines the systemic change as a whole (1985-1995) and not only the ”phase of transition” (1985-1990) in the proper sense. ”Systemic change” means the change of the manner of political ruling. In the context of this article it consists of three different phases: crises, transition, (democratic) consolidation. Whereby ”©Transition” is defined as the phase of a peaceful change from an authoritarian régime towards a more democratic, more liberal kind of régime. On this subject, cf. Zoltán Tibor Pállinger, Die politische Elite Ungarns im Systemwechsel. 1985-1995, Haupt, Bern 1997b.