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Hungary: The Party System from 1963 to 2000

By Michael J. Faber*

From the time he became First Secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party in 1956, Janos Kadar was the most dominant figure in Hungarian politics. In the 1960s, when the leaders of the Soviet Union were attempting a second wave of destalinization in Eastern Europe, Kadar took several steps towards economic reform within Hungary. He announced that there was no need for total party allegiance by all people, and that non-party members can contribute to public life. His government created a New Economic Mechanism (NEM) to reform the economy, and this led to a period of heightened prosperity.

Since the NEM utilized market mechanisms, Hungary's economy didn't follow the model of a command economy, but its leaders were unwilling go further towards a free market. Soon Hungary's economy began to falter, leading the government to borrow heavily from other countries. "By 1986 Hungary was the most heavily indebted communist state in Central or Eastern Europe, with its foreign convertible currency debt amounting to 62.2 per cent of GDP." (East and Pontin 1997: 52) Nonetheless, Hungary was seen as economically liberal by most western nations.

During this time, a pro-reform wing of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party began to gain prominence. In 1988, this wing finally ousted Kadar (at the time 76 years old) from the position of First Secretary after more than three decades holding that position; he died a year later. Karoly Grosz, a Kadar loyalist, took over the leadership position but was ousted soon thereafter. At last the reformers had taken over the government under Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth, and almost immediately set about reforming the political system.

In 1989, independent political parties were made legal, and several opposition parties quickly sprung up. Later that year, the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party dissolved itself to create the Hungarian Socialist Party. The first multiparty elections in 45 years were scheduled to be held in 1990. The Socialist Party had attempted to set itself up as the party that began the reform process, but only managed to win eleven percent of the votes as anti-communist parties won approximately three-quarters of them.

In the 1990 elections, the Hungarian Democratic Forum, led by historian Jozsef Antall, emerged as the clear winner, with the largest parliamentary faction, over forty percent of the seats. Antall became the Prime Minister of a government consisting of the Hungarian Democratic Forum, the Independent Smallholders Party, and the Christian Democratic People’s Party. The Alliance of Free Democrats became the primary opposition party, and was quick to criticize the government for not bringing about reform quickly enough.

On May 22, 1990, Antall gave his State of the Nation Address, explaining his government’s plans for the next four years. He encouraged the people "to abandon the decades-long, centuries-old habit of being distrustful, to consider the government agencies their own; agencies that operate for the good, in the defence and at the service of our citizens." Unfortunately, "Jozsef Antall’s request was not honored by the politically conscious public, and the government has been looked at with distrust for almost four years" (Gombar 1994: 10). The death of Prime Minister Antall in December 1992 hurt the ruling party incredibly, and over the course of the next year the party lost about twenty of its seats in parliament to other parties and members declaring themselves independent. In particular, a number of members of parliament left the Democratic Forum to form a new political party. These members, led by Istvan Csurka, formerly constituted the archconservative wing of the Hungarian Democratic Forum.

During Antall’s time as Prime Minister, significant reforms were put into place, and privatization of government industry began at a slow but steady pace. However, allegations of corruption and the slow pace of reform, as well as the downward turn of Hungary’s economy, led to the government’s popularity plummeting. The loss of its leader led to disastrous results in the 1994 elections.

In the 1994 elections, the Hungarian Democratic Forum’s support fell to one quarter of the level it achieved in the 1990 elections. Meanwhile, the Hungarian Socialist Party was the big winner of the elections, winning 54 percent of the seats in the parliament. The Socialist Party ran on a platform of experience and stability, as well as radical reform. They emphasized their experience in government from the Communist regime, but also stressed the need for radical reform at a rapid pace. In this respect, their platform was somewhat contradictory, in that they were emphasizing the past while endorsing rapid change for the future. However, the message came across well, and the Socialists took over the government.

Gyula Horn, leader of the Socialist Party, became Prime Minister in a government that could have been formed with the support of only his party, but in the interest of establishing some sort of consensus, he invited the Alliance of Free Democrats to join his Socialists in a coalition government. This coalition included more than seventy percent of the parliamentary seats, so it was incredibly strong compared to the four small opposition parties, and seemed to represent the views of Hungary rather well. This new liberal government put in place reforms of its own, eliminating some put in place by the Antall government and speeding up the pace of others. It was prepared to bring about radical and rapid change.

Horn, a former Foreign Minister in the Communist government, immediately began to negotiate trade agreements, as well as seeking membership in NATO and the European Union. Meanwhile, the pace of privatization efforts was accelerated. At the same time many social welfare programs were preserved and some were even increased. Unfortunately for the Socialists and Free Democrats, a number of scandals tarnished these accomplishments, most related to privatization. However, the Free Democrats took the majority of the blame for the scandals, as the opposition parties tried to label them as untrustworthy. Many of these attacks were distinctly anti-Semitic in nature against a party in which many of the elites are Jewish. The opposition parties, particularly those furthest to the right, attempted to play on the prejudices of the population.

This religious attack paid off for the right wing parties in the 1998 elections. The Socialist Party, although receiving about the same vote total as four years before, failed to return a majority faction to the parliament, taking only 134 seats out of 386. The League of Young Democrats, winning only slightly fewer votes than the Socialists, won the plurality of seats, taking 148. The Alliance of Free Democrats were hit hard by the scandals during the previous government, and received only a third of the votes and seats from the 1994 elections. The archconservative Hungarian Justice and Life Party won six percent of the votes and fourteen seats after running an extremely anti-liberal and anti-Semitic campaign.

Viktor Orban, the leader of the Young Democrats since its creation, became Prime Minister of a new government encompassing the Young Democrats, the Independent Smallholders Party (which had its most successful election in 1998 since before the Communist regime), and the Hungarian Democratic Forum (which won only eighteen individual constituency seats and failed to cross the five percent threshold). Meanwhile, the Socialist Party became the primary opposition party, as it continues to push for radical reform; "ironically, [the Socialist Party] has become the greatest defender of the adoption of Western liberal institutions." (Murer 1999: 204) It remains to be seen just how effective the Young Democrats’ government will be; if it struggles, the Socialists will be there to capitalize on those problems and reclaim the government.

Continuity and Change in Political Parties, 1963-2000

Original Parties from 1950-1962 continuing to 2000

641 Hungarian Socialist Party (MSzP). Formerly the Socialist Workers' Party, the Socialist Party changed its name in 1989 just prior to the first free multiparty elections in more than forty years. Unfortunately, the change in name and a significant change in ideology did not allow the Socialists to distance themselves from their Communist past, and they secured less than ten percent of the seats in 1990. Adding further initial problems, most of the hard-line Communists from the party prior to 1989 left to form small Communist parties, leaving the Socialists without a chunk of electoral support and many of its previous activists. However, running on promises of a stable government as well as their plans for reform, the Socialists won an impressive 54 percent of the seats in 1994. Although they were a majority party, the Socialists entered into a coalition with the Alliance of Free Democrats to emphasize their desire for a national consensus, promising to allow the Free Democrats the right to veto decisions of the government. In 1998, however, although their vote total fell only slightly the Socialists lost their majority in parliament and became the largest minority group. They remain one of the strongest and perhaps the most stable major party in Hungarian politics today.

New Parties formed after 1962 and continuing to 2000

642 Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF). The Hungarian Democratic Forum was founded in 1988 as a populist party. As such, it consisted of a loose coalition of a wide variety of ideologies. Led by Historian Jozsef Antall, it was very successful in 1990, capturing a quarter of the votes and over forty percent of the seats, forming a coalition government under Prime Minister Antall with the Independent Smallholders Party and the Christian Democratic People's Party. However, internal disputes quickly began to tear the party apart. The party was attempting to establish a consensus, and as such the pace of reform was very slow. Meanwhile, the opposition parties were calling for radical reforms. In 1993, Prime Minister Antall died, leaving the party without a strong leader. By the end of the four year term, the Democratic Forum had lost about thirty of its 164 seats; its members left to join other parties or become independent. In 1994, the Democratic Forum saw its electoral support cut in half, and it won less than a quarter of the seats it held four years earlier. In 1998, the party failed to receive five percent of the vote and were unable to win proportional representation seats, although they did win eighteen constituency seats. They are currently a small part of the government led by the League of Young Democrats.

643 Alliance of Free Democrats (SzDSz). Formed in 1989, the Alliance of Free Democrats was the primary liberal party, pushing for radical reforms to the political and economic systems. After a second-place showing in 1990, their support has been steadily declining. In 1994, they were the junior partner in a coalition with the Socialist Party. In 1998, their electoral support fell dramatically, and they were forced back into the minority. Currently, the Free Democrats are the second largest opposition party, although much smaller than the Socialists who hold more than a third of the legislature.

644 Independent Smallholders Party (FKgP). The Smallholders Party existed prior to the Communist regime; in fact, it won 57 percent of the seats in the last multiparty democratic elections in 1945. It was reformed in 1989 essentially to advocate the return of property claimed by the Communist government. It finished third in 1990 and joined the governing coalition. In 1992, however, it had serious internal problems with a more radical wing of the party. This infighting hurt the Smallholders in the 1994 elections. In 1998, the party had its best showing since 1945 and returned to the government as the number two party in the coalition.

645 League of Young Democrats (FIDESZ). The League of Young Democrats was initially very liberal and shared close ties with the Alliance of Free Democrats. It was formed mostly of students, and party members were required to be under age 35. The League did well in 1990, winning five percent of the seats in parliament. In 1994, they did about the same. Both times they played the part of the opposition. The League was experiencing a rapid shifting of ideology, however, as it moved steadily towards the center, and actually became a somewhat conservative party. In 1997, their parliamentary faction was joined by a dissident group from the Christian Democratic People's Party, making the League the largest opposition party in parliament. As early as 1992, polls indicated that the League of Young Democrats was the most popular party in Hungary, although these polls didn't translate into votes in 1994. Prior to the 1998 election, the League lifted its age restriction for membership, and in 1998, it became the strongest parliamentary party, although it fell far short of a majority with its 38 percent of the seats. It formed a government under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the party leader since before the 1990 elections, along with the Independent Smallholders Party and the Hungarian Democratic Forum.

646 Christian Democratic People's Party (KDNP). The Christian Democratic People's Party, like the Independent Smallholders Party, was a renewal of a party that existed prior to Communist rule. The party claimed to be a rebirth of the Popular Democrats, the main opposition party after the 1945 elections. The Christian Democrats finished sixth in 1990, the smallest party to win proportional seats in parliament. As a more conservative party, they formed a governing coalition with the Democratic Forum and the Smallholders. In 1994, their support held relatively constant, although they were no longer a part of the government. However, in 1997, the party hit serious problems. Almost half of the parliamentary faction was expelled from the party as a result of major internal conflict. In 1998, the party failed to win any seats.

647 Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP). The Hungarian Justice and Life Party was formed when a group of extreme conservatives, led by Istvan Csurka, broke off from the Hungarian Democratic Forum in 1993. It held eleven seats for that year, but failed to return any in the following year's elections. In 1998, however, it was much more successful. Running a strongly anti-liberal and anti-Semitic campaign, Csurka led his party to win fourteen seats, finishing fifth in popular vote with six percent.


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*Participant in Northwestern University's Summer Camp on Party Research, June-August, 2000.