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  • Postcommunist Politics in Hungary
  • János Kis (bio)

Free elections held in March and April of 1990 gave postcommunist Hungary its first legitimate government in many decades. The nationalist, center-right Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) won 43 percent of the vote and 165 seats in the 386-seat National Assembly. Together with its coalition partners, the Smallholders' Party (43 seats) and Christian Democratic People's Party (21 seats), it formed a government and named MDF leader József Antall as premier. My own party, the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), emerged as the largest opposition grouping with 92 seats. Our allies, the Federation of Young Democrats (FIDESZ), won 21 seats. The Communists (who had redubbed themselves "Socialists" before the elections) won only 33 seats.

The spring of 1990 was a season of great hope in Hungary, yet the people's confidence in parliament and the government has eroded quickly since then. The political crisis that undermined the Communist-run party-state in the 1980s seems to have made an eerie comeback, and while the drop in public trust has hurt the government and the governing parties the most seriously, it would be self-deceiving to believe that the opposition, including the Alliance of Free Democrats, has not been affected.

The reasons for this loss of confidence in multiparty democracy go deeper than the daily give-and-take of politics, however. In order to [End Page 3] grasp our situation and possible courses of action, we must first clearly understand these reasons.

Hungary's communist regime was not toppled by a mass movement wielding overwhelming power. Here, we did not even have the traces of an organized resistance like Poland's Solidarity capable of mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people. Nor was there ever an occasion for millions to take to the streets over a period of weeks, as happened in Czechoslovakia in late 1989.

Hungarian society did help to topple the government of Communist premier Jáos Kádár, but in ways that did not involve much active resistance or organized political activity. Once the Kádár leadership could no longer guarantee perceptible (even if slow) growth in living standards, its earlier supporters—including industrial workers, various groups participating in the second economy, mid-level intellectuals, and technocrats—simply suspended their patience and goodwill.

Society never considered the communist system to be legitimate, but tolerated it as long as it succeeded economically. When the economic successes ran out, so did public tolerance, and the Communist leadership class soon found itself badly undercut. Under these circumstances, a relatively small group of intellectuals was able to pressure the Communists, their self-confidence in tatters, to agree to the negotiations that laid the groundwork for parliamentary democracy in Hungary.

The Hungarian people had high hopes for the change in regimes, and they accept democracy even while refusing to identify unconditionally with it. The lack of a cathartic experience of popular revolution explains some of this hesitancy. Also missing is the kind of commitment that comes only from active participation in political struggle, and which implies a willingness to accept further sacrifices for the preservation of democracy. The people's identification with their new Hungary is conditional, tied even in the very short term to economic success.

Confidence in the political leadership is similarly conditional. There are no politicians who, like Lech Walesa in Poland or Vá;iclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, have gained the confidence of society as leaders of long, shared battlesdemocracy here is not the product of these. There is no one with support strong enough to ask for serious additional sacrifices. Only leaders who can demonstrate or convincingly promise immediate success can count on popularity. There are no reserves of confidence. The parties and their leaders are at the mercy of an ever-impatient public opinion.

Every revolution involves major changes in personnel. People of the old regime disappear from the pinnacles of power, and a new political leadership takes their places. But revolution must also shake up the lower levels of power. Every communist regime has a large "middle management" sector—legions of administrators and economic functionaries who carry out the dictates of power. Society will see a...