WORLD

Tolerating dissent

Hungarians debate new proposals for reform

ANDREW PHILLIPS March 27 1989
WORLD

Tolerating dissent

Hungarians debate new proposals for reform

ANDREW PHILLIPS March 27 1989

The irony was unmistakable. In front of Hungary’s imposing Gothic Parliament building in central Budapest last week, 100,000 protesters packed Lajos Kossuth Square to demand democratic reforms. They cheered when Viktor Orban, a leader of the Federation of Young Democrats youth group, called for Soviet troops to leave Hungary. “How can we speak of independence,” declared Orban, “when the Russian soldiers who reoccupied our country in 1956 are still in our midst?” The last time such a crowd had gathered in the square was a few days before the Soviets invaded Hungary to quash an anti-Communist revolt that started in October, 1956. Then, secret policemen opened fire from the roofs of surrounding buildings, killing almost 200 protesters. But last week’s massive demonstration of opposition force on Hungary’s traditional March 15 national day went off without incident: the only security forces in evidence were a handful of policemen directing traffic.

Both the size of last week’s march and the authorities’ decision to let it proceed without interference underlined the bewildering pace of political change in Hungary. The country has long enjoyed the freest political atmosphere in Communist Eastern Europe. But in the past two months, the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers’ (Communist) Party has opened the floodgates of reform by reversing its stand on several key issues. In mid-February, a leading reform member of the Politburo touched off a national debate when he declared that the 1956 rebellion was a “popular uprising”—rather than its official description for more than 32 years as a “counterrevolution.” And most important, party leader Károly Grósz endorsed the principle that Hungary should move to a democratic system of multiparty elections.

At the same time, the government acted quickly to shed its authoritarian image and to associate itself more closely with traditional symbols of Hungarian nationalism. It declared that Nov. 7, the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in the Soviet Union, would no longer be observed as a holiday. Instead, the March 15 national day—which commemorates Hungary’s 1848 uprising against Austrian rule—was restored. Officials are now drafting a new, Western-style constitution to replace the Soviet-modelled 1949 document. The government has given permission for those executed after the 1956 rebellion—including former prime minister Imre Nagy—to be officially reburied after lying in unmarked graves for three decades. And even Hungary’s postwar coat of arms, which incorporates the Communist red star, may be dropped in favor of the traditional shield topped by the Crown of St. Stephen, the old symbol of the monarchy.

The changes have come so quickly that Hungarians across the political spectrum confess they can barely keep up. Such changes indicate an important shift in direction for the Communist party, whose bold reformist faction now dominates the leadership. Instead of resisting the tide of popular support for a return to democracy, the Communists have moved to put themselves at its head—and to position themselves to win votes in an election scheduled for 1990. Three days before last week’s national day celebrations, the party published a new 15-point program that called for free elections, human rights and an independent judiciary—and disassociated itself from “the errors” of the previous leadership. “The party faces up to the past in a spirit of criticism,” it declared. “It is breaking with the old false and distorted political and economic structure.”

As part of their kinder, gentler image, Hungary’s Communist leaders called on opposition groups—which they had repressed barely a year ago—to join official celebrations of last week’s national day as a sign of unity among all political forces. But most of Hungary’s so-called alternative groups rejected that appeal and staged their own rallies. In Budapest, the independents’ five-hour march through the city dwarfed a government-sponsored ceremony that attracted only about 30,000 people. And the opposition forces capped their daytime showing with a spectacular evening torchlight procession across the Danube River and into the city’s historic castle district.

The marches demonstrated the street-level strength of the independent groups, which number about three dozen with a combined membership of about 50,000. Most of their leaders remain deeply suspicious of the Communist party’s actions, accusing it of manoeuvring to stay in power. In fact, most opposition spokesmen suspect that the party plans to arrange a coalition platform with non-Communist groups before the 1990 elections that would guarantee key government ministries and a substantial number of seats in parliament for Communists. That would leave the Socialist Workers’ Party with effective control of the government into the mid-1990s. “We want straightforward free elections,” said Ferenz Koszeg, a leader of the League of Free Democrats, a group of liberal intellectuals. He added: “But the Communists are determined not to give up real power now. They keep throwing roadblocks in the way.”

Other opposition leaders, however, say that some kind of coalition is needed because Hungarians are not ready for a freewheeling Western-style election after four decades of political repression. They include many members of the recently revived Social Democratic Party, which was forcibly merged with the Hungarian Communist party in 1947 to form the Socialist Workers’ Party. Unlike other independent groups, the Social Democrats participated in last week’s government-sponsored national day celebrations—and most observers regard them as the Communists’ most likely partners in a pre-election coalition agreement. Indeed, many leading members of the Communist party’s reformist faction, including Politburo members Imre Pozsgay and Rezso Nyers, espouse ideas much closer to Western European social democracy than to traditional Marxism-Leninism.

Mihály Tamás Révész, a law professor in Budapest and the son of the Social Democrats’ 80-year-old president, András Révész, said that the non-Communist forces are not ready to fight an election. “We have lost two generations of leadership because of the one-party monopoly,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s. “My feeling is that we have to build a consensus for the 1990 election. So the Socialist Workers’ Party will stay in power until 1995—but it won’t be the same party as it is now. It has been changing quickly and it will continue to change.”

Reformist leaders in the Communist party also emphasize the need for consensus to ease Hungary’s transition to democracy—and to avoid social turmoil as the country tackles its deep economic problems. With 17-per-cent inflation, foreign debts of about $20 billion and uncompetitive industry, Hungary is experiencing declining living standards. Government leaders acknowledge that moving to a market economy will mean higher prices, more unemployment and economic pain for ordinary people.

As a result, such new-look Communist officials as Jeno Andics, head of the party’s propaganda department, argue that opposition leaders should regard the party as an ally in a common campaign for economic and political reform. “Why dwell on the past, on 1956 and all that,” Andics asked during an interview in the party’s white-marble Central Committee headquarters on the east bank of the Danube. “Who can say his conscience is entirely clear for all the actions of his past?” Like many other Hungarians, Andics cited Spain as an example of a country that has made a successful transition from dictatorship to democracy. “After [Francisco] Franco died, 150 parties sprung up in Spain—but they had the king as a force for unity,” Andics noted. “In Hungary only our party has experience of governing. So the party must undertake the role of the king.” He added quickly, “In a symbolic way, of course.”

Hungarians will attempt to make that transition to multiparty democracy—unprecedented in the Communist world—within the framework of a new constitution. The existing document, adopted in 1949 under Soviet guidance, entrenches the Communist party’s “leading role”—in effect, its monopoly on power—as part of the country’s basic law. The new constitution, which is being drafted now and is expected to be submitted to a nationwide referendum by early 1990, will do away with that provision. In fact, the man chiefly responsible for drawing up the constitution, deputy Justice Minister Géza Kilényi, said last week that almost nothing will remain of the Soviet-style law. “My feeling at the moment is that we can retain just one sentence,” Kilényi said with a smile during an interview with Maclean’s in his office near Lajos Kossuth Square. “And that is: ‘the capital of Hungary is Budapest.’ ”

The draft constitution that Kilényi has prepared would give Hungary a presidential system—and may also change the name of the country from the present “people’s republic,” with its communist overtones, to a simple “republic.” His department is also preparing new laws to regulate political parties and to establish a framework for a freer press. Still, Hungary’s news media already offer substantial diversity. One of the newest publications is a remarkable tabloid weekly called Reform, which mixes photographs of bare-breasted women with in-depth coverage of the political scene. Editor Péter Töke argues that the racy content draws in readers who would not normally wade through lengthy political articles. “They may come for the pictures,” Töke said last week, “but they stay for the stories.” While it may be provocative, the paper enjoys official sanction: the Communist party is a 15-per-cent shareholder.

Despite their determination to press ahead with radical changes, few Hungarians express a desire to break completely with the Soviet system by withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact alliance or the COMECON trading association. For now, say many opposition leaders and reform-minded Communists, domestic reform should proceed inside those organizations. They argue that Hungary would undermine Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts at reform in the Soviet Union if it broke with its Eastern allies. “Such a step would hurt Gorbachev—and thus damage the whole process of reform in the Socialist countries,” noted Csaba Tabajdi, deputy head of the Communist party’s international affairs section. “We don’t want to indulge in kamikaze actions.”

Despite many obstacles, Hungary may have the best chance of any Communist country of successfully overhauling its economy and achieving democracy. Western observers in Budapest note that Hungary has several advantages over its neighbors. Unlike Poland or East Germany, it is not strategically vital to the Soviet Union; its economy is in better shape than that of Poland or Yugoslavia, two other relatively liberal Communist states; and its politics are not as sharply polarized as those of Poland, whose government is also attempting to forge a type of partnership with its chief opponent, the Solidarity workers movement.

Hungary’s political debate, though heated, is taking place among a relatively narrow circle of Budapest intellectuals. “You have a small and cohesive elite—both in the party and the independent groups,” one Western diplomat noted last week. “They have gone to the same schools and institutes, they have all intersected with one another and they share a lot of common values.” That may give Hungary its best chance to forge a new consensus for the future out of its tragically divided past.