Date: Wed, 10 Jan 1996 06:53:20 -0800
Decline and Rise of the Left Communists, Socialists and Socialdemocrats in Hungary
By Laszlo Andor, Newsletter, The International Communication Project, Nr. 25, January 1996
The landslide victory of the Hungarian Socialdemocratic Party (MSZP) in the general elections in May 1994 seemed to be the biggest turn to the left of all the elections in central and eastern Europe in recent time. And even though leading industrialists had visited the headquarter of the Party on the Place of the Republic months before the elections to safeguard the goodwill of the socialist politicians, nobody had expected such an outstanding victory, gaining the absolute majority.
First the western press reacted in a usual way, reporting about the red nightmare. In most newspapers, the Socialist Party was described as a, "Party of former Communists," and the Hungarian election results were seen within the context of a regional trend towards left parties and to politicians of old; this trend began in Lithuania in 1992, was continued in Poland in 1993 and most likely it will continue in the rest of the former Soviet interest sphere, with the probable exception of the Czech Republic.
This article tries to analyse whether the red nightmare which is painted on the walls by certain western media, has its justification or not. How can the political character of a postcommunist party basically look like five years after the historical disintegration of the East-European state-socialism? The profile of the Hungarian Socialist Party and other left organisations shall be analysed. We start with an historical overview and after that we try to explain the remarkable comeback of the MSZP. Finally, the policy of the new government, led by the socialists, shall be judged.
The dissolution of the MSZMP
The strongest Hungarian leftist party, the MSZP, regards itself as a new party, younger than all the other parties in parliament, simply because the oppositional parties had been founded at the end of State Socialism, 1988 - 98, whereas the Socialist Party was founded in October 1989, during the 14th Congress of the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party (MSZMP). Already one year before the Congress, several reform groups started to work within the party and demanded the transition into democratic and market economical positions. Still, these circles were hardly supported by the members (almost 800,000 at that time), but they had a good publicity, and with external aid they were able to put pressure on the leadership to change the policy and to take into account the general changes.
The most important leaders of the reform wing of the MSZMP were Imre Pozsgay, the advocate of democratisation, and Rezss Nyer who mainly stood for economic reforms. They joined even before the party's conference in 1988 in which Janos Kadar and most of the members of the Politburo and the Central Committee were forced to leave. When more and more politicians understood that further changes could not be prevented because of the economic crisis and the changes in foreign policy initiated by Gorbatchov, the reform circles gained more and more support, and finally they asked the party's leadership, headed by General Karoly Grssz, to resign. In March 1989, Primeminister Miklos Nemeth broke with Grssz and joined the reformers. In June, Nyers was installed as the party's President.
In the Summer, delegations of the MSZP, led by Pozsgay, and representatives of oppositional parties and the citizens' rights movement agreed on a peaceful transition towards a parliamentary democracy. This agreement was signed in September. At the same time, the public opinion was directed against socialism by the drama of the East-German tourists and by the strong manipulations of the media by Pozsgay's men. During the congress, staged for the beginning of October, the reform wing was ready to form a new party with new political guidelines compatible to a market-economical and multi-party system. Those who could not join this programme, started to organise alternative platforms, the most important one being the Democratic People's Platform (PDP).
The ideological background for this platform and also for some of their leaders was the Left Alternative Alliance which was founded in September 1988. The mostly intellectual members of the left Alternative tried to develop alternatives to the capitalist privatisation and supported the ideas of economic democracy and workers' self-governing; it seemed to be rooted in the newly advancing workers' council movement. Their aim was to let the ,true socialism" survive within the postcommunist political structures, although also party careerists joined the platform, because they did not find a proper place within the triumphant reform movement.
The reform alliance, led by the political scientist Attila Agh, was resolved to establish a new party, whereas the PDP, led by the historian Tamas Krausz, finally decided to join the former one in order to safeguard the unity of the party. It almost seemed like the right and the left opposition of the Kadarists were about to establish a new party. Nyers who at that time still defended the existence of traditional parties (which was later caused to fall in a vote initiated by the Free Democrats), was elected party leader. During the same referendum in November 1989, Pozsgay's ambitions to become president of the new republic had been broken.
During the party's congress it was decided that only newly admitted people can become members. So, members of the MSZMP were forced to re-apply for membership, yet the property of the MSZMP had been taken over by the MSZP. In a live-interview on t.v. on the evening of the party's foundation, Nyers said that they are expecting to have 300,000 to 400,000 members. Actually, it had only been one tenth after the first year, and also during the following years, the number of members could not be raised significantly. The former members realised that the political structure had changed profoundly and that within the new structure membership was less necessary that before. Also, many of them joined liberal and conservative parties, and even 23 per cent of the members of parliament after April 1990 had been former members of the MSZMP. For those who held up socialist values and achievements, it was uncertain which party to join. Besides the MSZP, the old MSZMP which was revived by old Kadarists in December 1989, and the Hungarian Socialdemocratic Party were still existing; furthermore, the patriotic Election Alliance and the Agrarian Union which was resolutely calling for the maintenance of collective farms, were active.
The disunity of the left had to lead to a disaster during the general elections in March 1990. The liberal votes were mainly won by the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) few votes were won by the Alliance of Young Democrats (FIDESZ); the majority of the conservative votes were won by the Hungarian Democratic Front, a small part went to the Independent Party of Small Landowners (FKGP) and also to the Christian Democratic People's Party (KDNP). The latter three formed the government, led by Primeminister Jszsef Antall.
The Valley of Tears
The MSZP only gained 10.9 per cent of the votes, and thus only got 33 seats in parliament out of 386. All of the other left parties had less than 4 per cent and were not represented in parliament. Yet, this was not the worst. Poszgay, who felt uneasy within a party that was only a tiny parliamentary fraction and constantly persecuted, left the party and later founded the Nationaldemocratic Alliance. In 1990, Nemeth also left the fraction, but he also left the parliament and the country and went to London as President of the Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The oldest one of the leading personage of the party, Nyers, was thrown out by the former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Gyula Horn, who was elected party president and intended to lead the party back to a successful course.
Horn had been working in the Foreign Service for three decades under Kadar. In the late 1980ies, he was member of the Central Committee and became Minister for Foreign Affairs when Miklss Nemeth reshuffled his government in 1989. When he was elected party president, he safeguarded a strong leadership by concentrating all the important decissions-making power into his hands.
As a tactician, Horn was ready to do almost everything to guarantee the survival of the left in times when several leading intellectuals had to resign, and the political right triumphed all along the line. These regional and general intellectual tendencies had most obviously a huge impact on the internal powerstructure of the MSZP. The right wing of the party took the lead, and discussions about socialist traditions and workers' movements were pushed to the fringe and were only discussed in weekend-talks and in magazines with very small circulations. Quite frequently, the party's leadership felt the need to give very aggressive comments about the MSZP to underline the divide from the past, and thus to enlarge the chances for a political survival.
Until 1993, the MSZP seemed to have been fighting for survival. Even as the popularity of the governing conservative coalition declined, the chances for the socialists still remained low. Most of the observers of the political scene, especially those working for liberal politicians, believed that in 1994 a liberal coalition would replace the conservative government. FIDESZ, which became the most popular party in 1992, joined an alliance and virtually formed a shadow coalition within the SZDSZ, the party of entrepreneurs, and the Agrarian Union (the latter one changed its political direction and joined the liberal bloc after the bad results in 1990).
Expecting a liberal coalition, socialist strategics advised the MSZP to save energy for the elections in 1998, practically waiting for the third free elections. In 1993, western journalists already wrote about Viktor Urban (FIDESZ) as the Primeminister of the new government. Yet, internal and also external factors prevented the predicted power constellation.
1. First, the failure to stabilise the capitalistic restoration in the CIS caused a huge loss of credibility for the transition period also in those countries where less victims were claimed by the transformation. Not only Russia but the whole former Soviet bloc could be seen to fall into terrible unrest and chaos and remain there for several years after the overcoming of state-socialism. Not forgetting the negative sides of the rule of the Communist Party, the people began to appreciate those things they had lost in the transition period, especially in countries where the socialist state had distributed many things among the people, i.e. Hungary.
2. Second, the fact that recession in the West could not be kept under control, also led to changes in the East. The West had less resources at his hands for the support of the East. Moreover, the absolute westernization had to be doubted when the capacities as well as the will of the western governments to support the transition states appeared to be low, whereas the loss of the Eastern market was immense.
These two external factors changed the national as well as the international acceptance of those parties that did not talk about the ,end of history". Of course, also important national factors led to the rising popularity of the MSZP.
3. The unexpectedly high burden of economic transition fed the anger against those who advocated most vigorously to direct the country into this adventure. Workers and employees whose living-standard declined constantly and whose jobs became increasingly insecure, were not only fed up with the arrogant coalition parties, but also with those who said that the programmes would have been successful if directed by more competent people. The ,half-turn" suggested by FIDESZ, had been rejected by almost the whole electorate.
4. Concerning the active part of political changes - the subjective factor - a new orientation of the left took place by the establishment of a close coalition between MSZP and the biggest trade unions. These trade unions did not operate militantly during the transition period, there were hardly any strikes in these years. In 1990, there had not been any official contact between the trade unions and the party, because both regarded the other one as bad company. At that time, the trade unions believed that contacts to a postcommunist party were useless in a time of unpolitical representation, and the party believed that a modern social democratic party can gain image by keeping their distance to the good old working class.
After summer 1993, when a liberal-conservative bloc, consisting of five parties, passed a law to destroy leftist trade unions, in particular the MSZOSZ, led by Sandor Nagy, both only had the opportunity to form an alliance. Still, they were as hesitant to chose between legal and illegal measures which gave MSZOSZ and others enough time to reorganise and even win the elections for the Social Insurance Boards in 1993. This result which brought the health founds as well as the pensions founds under the control of MSZOSZ, was the first sign for a left-turn in the forthcoming general elections.
Horn did not inhale
Considering the transitional problems in this region and the rising popularity of the MSZP, also the international support increased. In 1992, MSZP was given observer status for the Socialist International. Pierre Mauroy, leader of the SI, visited Hungary three months before the elections and advocated the ideas of democratic socialism with the full credibility of western civilisation. Also Franz Vranitzki, Bundeschancellor of Austria, visited Horn in Gyvr soon after Mauroy.
The MSZP was desperately in need of foreign and national support, because the conservative propaganda-machine tried to destroy the Socialists, the Liberals and especially Horn as a person, by the aid of the whole national electronic media. Above all, they concentrated on Horn's history of 1956, when he had been member of the Volunteer ,Rubberjacket" Brigades, fighting along with Kadar. Already in 1990, Horn had confessed these events and underlined his confessions in his biography, written in the same year. According to his version, he had never shot at people but had only guarded bridges and buildings. This sounded very much like Clinton's confession to have had smoked marijuana once, but to have not inhaled. And like in the case of Clinton, marijuana and American public, nobody took any interest in who had done what in 1956 or 1968. The people were more interested in the living circumstances of the 90ies.
Trying to make the most of Horn's history became a failure, also because the veterans of 1956 left a very bad and unattractive political impression in recent years. They joined with the extreme right and supported bloodthirsty ideas in a time when the people wished for reconciliation. Under these circumstances, Horn, who came from an extremely poor worker's family, fought against ,these" people in 1956, opened the borders for east German tourists in 1989, stood against the aristocratic style and the mismanagement of the conservative coalition, seemed like a Robin Hood to the electorate.
The final boom for the MSZP came from the car accident of Horn only 58 hours before the opening of the polling-stations. He just returned to Budapest from Miskolc, the biggest industrial city in the north. There, the successful happening ended with cheers and Horn ended his speech by saying that a government led by the Socialists would end the ,noble spree" (a allusion to the a story of Zsigmond Msricz, the nation's most famous farmer's author of the beginning 20th century). One hour later, Horn was driving onto a lorry standing on the street without any light; the circumstances of the accident are still investigated.
The first round of elections took place on May 8, and the MSZP won 33 per cent of the votes. The second round was held three weeks later and the MSZP won in all constituencies but 24. This meant 54 per cent of the votes and 206 of the 386 seats in parliament. A regional study of the elections revealed that only in two regions non-socialist candidates were triumphant. The one region was the hilly area Buda, where the upper class confirmed the MDF politicians, following the historical pattern of Conservatism. The second one was the North-West, especially along the border to Austria, where the liberal candidates (SZDSZ) were quite successful.
The region with the most left votes is north of Budapest, where some candidates of the Workers' Party (the new name of the MSZMP) had almost won seats. Yet, the candidates of the Workers' Party who still called themselves Communists, were not able to build up a strong competition to the MSZP. Their slogans were old-fashioned, whereas the MSZP was successful in combining the relative security of the 80ies with the promises of the West. The leaders of the Workers' Party could not gain such popularity like Gregor Gysi, then leader of the German PDS, although their party was the strongest among those who were not represented in parliament. To prevent the Workers' Party (and other small parties) from entering the parliament, the quota was risen to 5 per cent. Yet, the predictions proved to be wrong because the Workers' Party only won 3 to 4 per cent of the votes.
The Social Democrats (MSZDP) had even greater problems in convincing the electorate from their leadership ability. Everybody had the scandalous president Anna Petrasovits in mind, who could impress Hans-Joachim Vogel, then leader of the German Social Democrats, and get some money from the SI, but she could not convince the electorate of being Anna Kithly, former leader of the MSZDP, and the Hungarian type of Mrs Grundland in one person. The party, hit by heavy internal fights, rejoined in 1993 under the leadership of the popular politician Zoltan Kiraly. But at that time the image was that bad that even Kiraly lost his seat for the city which he represented between 1985 and 1994.
It became evident that the people voted for parties and not for single persons. In the ninth district of Budapest, for example, a completely unknown young physicist, Mihaly Kvkiny, who was on the socialist list, won against the president of SZDSZ, Piter Tvlgyessy, and the Minister of Finance, Ivan Szabs. In another constituency of Budapest, Ivan Pitv, leader of the Free Democrats, was beaten by Ilkiks Picsi, a popular actress. The results had surprised both supporters and opponents. More and more hints are evolving that the people not only voted for a change after the tragic experience of the transition period, but that the general direction of the system was no longer attractive for most of the citizens.
A study revealed that the number of people who believed the Kadar-regime to be better than the present social circumstance, had risen between the beginning of 1992 and 1994 significantly. ,The number of those who believe that market economy must be implemented even though it will claim its victims, had declined from 40 to 29 per cent. This time, only 17 per cent of the people denounced the assertion that the introduction of capitalism in Hungary caused more evil than good. The majority agreed partly or wholly on the fact that capitalism brings along painful experiences." (Vasarhelyi, 1994: 3)
It is worthwhile quoting more of the summary of this study, accomplished by the Department for Communication Studies of the Hungarian Academy of the Sciences and the Evtvvs Lorand University: ,The number of those who believe that a great deal of Socialism should have remained, had risen from 28 to 38 per cent. The number of those who rejected this point of view, declined from 28 per cent in 1992 to 17 per cent. A rising number of people believes that the Kadar-regime had been more just and took more care about the problems of the common people. At the same time, the wish for a caring and paternalistic state rose, and now the majority believes that the role of the state should be stronger concerning regulation and redistribution of wages. A great majority believes that a stronger state control on economical processes is necessary. The resistance against privatisation increased. In this poll, fifty per cent of the people questioned, believed that bigger companies should not be privatised (another quarter partly believed this). In addition, the majority of the people do not see any real work behind the enrichment of the entrepreneurs. Today, it is almost common knowledge that under the current economical circumstances, only those are successful who speculate or who have good informal relationships." (Vasarhelyi, 1994: 3-4)
Forming the Government
Despite the absolute majority of the MSZP, negotiation about a coalition with the SZDSZ soon began. This had several reasons. First, the international reliability of the MSZP asked for a coalition with a party which was blameless for western capital and western governments. Second, the intended austerity policy should be supported by other parties, in particular because the debated measures were more likely to be found on the agenda of the latter one than on the agenda of the Socialists. Third, the SZDSZ was willing for form a coalition to show their electorate that they are worth being supported and that they represent power. And fourth, the negotiations already begun months before without knowing the results of the forthcoming elections.
The distribution of the departments as a result of the three-weeks negotiations reflected the relationship between the parties as well as within the parties. To agree to the coalition, the SZDSZ, which gained 69 seats in parliament, could nominate three ministers: Gabor Kuncze (Interior), Karoly Lotz (Transport and Communication) and Gabor Fodor (Culture and Education). Kuncze and Lotz had been managers in private companies and were the most unknown members of parliament until the SZDSZ-leaders decided that Kuncze was the only personality fit for President. Finally, he wasn't made president but he not only became minister, but also deputy of Primeminister Gyula Horn. Fodor, one of the most famous politicians of Hungary, did not belong to the core of the party, either, since he only joined it before the elections -after his withdrawal from FIDESZ in November 1993.
The other ministers are socialists and represent the different wings within the party. The most extreme right one, without doubt even more extreme than many of the Free Democrats, is Laszlo Bikesi, the Finance Minister which he had already been in the Nemeth-government. Bikesi stands for the austerity policy of the MSZP and therefore, his becoming a minister and the acceptance of the Bikesi-programme had been a prerequisite for the SZDSZ to form a coalition.
The formation of the Bikesi-programme goes back to August 1993 when the MSZP launched a election campaign about the good times that were about to come if the people voted them. Later, it became evident that this campaign had been an invention of the party and that it was missing any analysis of the economic circumstances in the country. After an open dispute, Bikesi, the strongest opponent of the campaign, announced his proposals about what was really possible. And this was very negative. He acknowledged the increase of GNP and a low unemployment rate as ultimate aims of a socialdemocratic party, but he also made clear that because of the twofold deficits, the government had to start with an austerity period in which the inflation as well as the unemployment rate would rise.
Bikesi also stands for neo-liberalism as the most important economical philosophy for the MSZP. Budgets have to be even, public spending have to be cut back, the trade has to liberalised, capital taxes have to be reduced and the selling of state companies, especially economic banks, must be accelerated. Concerning privatisation, the Bikesi-programme said. ,We hold the opinion that the input of new capital, the technological modernisation and the protection as well as the creation of workplaces should be the most important aims of the privatisation. Therefore, it is our aim to create equal conditions for national and foreign professional investors by clear competition rules. We can contain the number of bankruptcies in the process of privatisation by purchasing state-shares and by prepare the privatisation which should be mainly directed towards economical aspects. In the preparation for privatisation we would hand over more influence to the company's management and to independent consulting companies. While we would carry out the privatisation through effective legislation, we do not plan to meet any recent claim. We do not support any distribution of private property of any sort during this privatisation process." (Bikesi, 1994: 4)
Bikesi seems to ignore the social context of his economic policy. His opinion concerning the trade unions is very close to that of Stalin. He believes, and also repeats it in front of journalists, that the one advantage of the MSZP lies in the circumstances that the socialist party keeps good contacts to the trade unions and therefore can most easily convince society of accepting the right economic policy. This is why he is member of the MSZP. Within this ,transmissionlines"-policy, the trade unions are part of the social dialogue, because they not only listen to economic experts, but they also produce alternative concepts.
Magda Kssa Kovacs is the one member of government with the closest contacts to trade unions. She is the Minister for Labour, and she is the only woman in the government. In the 80ies, she had been secretary in the national Trade Union Council and became member of parliament in 1990. Apart from her, there are two more ministers who belong to the party's left wing.: Pal Vastagh, former legal professor and member of the Politburo, and now Minister of Justice, and Laszlo Pal, Minister for Industry and Trade, who was deputy minister under Nemeth and who stands up against Bikesi's neo-liberal economic policy in several points. Both, Vastagh and Pal, had been members of the Left Alliance.
The cabinet also included some experts right of the party's middle, for example Laszls Kovacs (Foreign policy), Laszls Lakos (Agrarian economy) and Pal Kovacs (Welfare). Populist ministers are Ferenz Baja (Environmental policy and regional development), Bila Katona (no special department, but commissioned to supervise the intelligent services) and Gyvrgy Keleti (Defence), who is a former spokesperson in the same department, until he was forced to resign to win a intermediary election in Kisbir in 1992.
The government started its policy with a double strategy. On the one hand, it stated that it still needed time to gain an overview on the actual situation in the country, which they were restricted from when they had been in opposition. On the other hand, it immediately started to introduce some cut down measures, because it regarded the result of the above mentioned study as rather gloomy. The experts of the IMF also supported Bikesi to implement his plans. Soon after the forming of the government, the Forint was devaluated by 8 per cent, increase of taxes as well as cutting of government spending and other cut down measures were announced. On September 27, Horn held a speech in parliament, transmitted in the media, about the serious economic situation and about the conditions of IMF and World Bank, and one month later, only several days before the arrival of Camdessus, President of the IMF, the yearly budget law was passed.
In October, all bigger leftist parties held their conferences. The MSZP confirmed Horn as party leader and elected Sandor Csintalan, a favourite of the trade union activists, party manager.
The most interesting point of this congress had been the fact that the delegates did not elected Imre Szekeres for vice president of the party - and thus successor of Horn.
The congress of the Workers' Party ended without any clear idea about possible changes and how the attraction and the competitiveness of the party could be improved.
During the congress of the Social Democrats, a new party leader was elected, Laszls Kapolyi, Minister for Industry in the 80ies and presently one of the most important representatives of the party. His election confirmed the position of the party, represented by Kiraly, between the MSZP and WP. The future will show, if this improves the heavily hit reputation of the Social Democrats.
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