A brass band struck up a martial tune last week as the troop train carrying the 139 members of a mechanized Soviet rifle battalion pulled out of the railway station at Hajmáskér, 90 km west of Budapest. “What an amazing feeling,” said Ferenc Somogyi,
Hungary’s state secretary of foreign affairs as he watched the Soviets depart. Just three days earlier, Somogyi had been in Moscow to negotiate the withdrawal of nearly 50,000 Soviet soldiers from Hungarian territory by the end of June, 1991. About 50 Hungarians from Hajmáskér and the surrounding countryside came to watch the initial farewell ceremony. Among them was 53-year-old Jenó Lengyel, an agricultural engineer who, as a university student in October, 1956, took part in the Hungarian uprising that Soviet troops swiftly crushed. “We have waited a very long time for this day,”
Lengyel said after driving 40 km from his home in Enying.
“I wanted to see for myself that the Soviets really leave.
Today, I am profoundly happy.”
The first troop withdrawals came just two weeks before national elections on March 25, Hungary’s first free, multiparty vote since 1947. (There will be runoff elections on April 8 in those districts where no single candidate wins a majority.) But after four decades of Soviet occupation and single-party Communist rule, the Soviet troops are leaving behind a country facing desperate economic difficulties. And while many Hungarians marvel at their new freedoms, others say that the outlook is so bleak that they do not intend to cast a ballot in the upcoming elections. Even among those who say that they will go to the polls, many express little hope that Hungary’s new democratic government will be able to bring them prosperity in the near future. “I am going to vote because that is the only way to help my country emerge from the terrible legacy
of communism,” said 74-year-old József Várszegi of Budapest. “But I pity the political party that wins. We have difficult times ahead.”
According to a national opinion poll released last week, three centrist opposition parties, the Alliance of Free Democrats, the Hungarian Democratic Forum and the Independent Smallholders’ Party, are each expected to win about 20 per cent of the vote. And one or more of them, along with smaller opposition parties, will likely form a coalition government. Only 8.7 per cent of the 1,000 Hungarians polled said that they would vote for the ruling Hungarian Socialist Party (HSP), formed last October by reform Communists after they dissolved
the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ (Communist) Party. And only 3.8 per cent said that they would vote for a small group of old-style Communists who revived the Socialist Workers’ Party.
Ironically, it was reformers within the old regime who launched Hungary’s democratization process when they ousted former leader János Kádár two years ago. Then, under growing pressure from opposition parties, they pledged to hold free elections and introduced some economic reforms. Last summer, opinion polls showed that the reform Communists were still the single most popular party, with about 30-per-cent support. But the dramatic upheavals in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania last fall also radicalized the Hungarian political scene. Said Ferenc Kulin, a leader of the Hungarian Democratic Forum: “Before the neighboring states changed so dramatically, we had more modest goals. We did not think that we could completely oust the Communists.” Last week, leaders of all three leading opposition parties said that they would not include either the Socialists or the old-style Communists in a coalition government.
The new political climate was evident in early March when Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn campaigned in Somogy county, where he is running for a seat in parliament. The campaign tour itself was a novelty: in previous elections, Commug nist candidates ran uncon= tested. And Horn clearly I wanted to make a good fines pression. He arrived at the 1 outskirts of Boglár Lelie, 125 I km southwest of Budapest, in ° a state-owned BMW. But there, a local party official was waiting in a small Soviet Lada to drive the minister to his various campaign stops. “He doesn’t want the villagers to think that he is so pompous,” the official explained. Still, although Hom is one of the most popular government ministers, only a handful of villagers turned out to greet him at his first campaign stop, in tiny Látrány. “The Socialist Party will be among the leading big parties,” Horn told Maclean ’s, “although it is in a difficult situation because many people still have difficulty distinguishing the old party from the new.”
For some Hungarians, the political changes have come too suddenly and with too much uncertainty. According to an opinion poll released last week, only 56 per cent of those
questioned said that they were certain to vote on March 25, while 12 per cent said that they are likely, or certain, not to vote. Some Hungarians say that they cannot make sense of the myriad party programs. The country now has no fewer than 53 political parties, including such environmentalist groups as the Health Party and the Biosphere Party. Other Hungarians contend that, even in multiparty elections, they will not have a significant voice in the country’s future government. “What difference does the election make for us little people?” asked Pál Barta, a 27-year-old mechanic from Kunhegyes, 115 km east of Budapest, who said that he did not plan to vote. “Sure, they are free elections, but in the end the big people will decide everything.”
Inflation, which economists say will be higher than 20 per cent this year, has also dampened public enthusiasm for the elections. For the past decade, Hungarians have seen their real wages erode to 1972 levels. The average Hungarian now takes home $143 a month. And more than two million people, almost a fifth of the country’s 10.8-million population, earn less than the so-called social minimum of $83 a month. To make ends meet, the average Hungarian man works 12 to 14 hours a day, often on two or three jobs, according to Mária Zita Petschnig, a senior researcher at Financial Research Ltd. in Budapest. The government also owes more than $20 billion to Western banks, the highest per-capita debt in the Eastern Bloc.
Canadian economist Sylvia Ostry returned to Toronto last week from a five-day meeting in Budapest of the Blue Ribbon Commission for Hungary’s economic recovery. Ostry is the Western co-chairman of the private commis-
sion, which includes economic, legal and social experts from West Germany, Spain, Britain, Austria, the United States, Japan and Australia working with Hungarians to oversee the transformation of the country’s mixed economy to a fully free-market system.
The commission will officially release a detailed report on April 6 in Budapest. It will contain the experts’ recommendations concerning the speed and sequence of introducing economic privatization, new credit and exchange-rate mechanisms, international markets as well as new social and political arrangements in democratic Hungary. “Everything is linked; it’s an incredibly complex and unprecedented situation,” said Ostry, a former deputy minister of international trade who is the current chairman of the Centre for International
Studies at the University of Toronto. Added Ostry: “The new government is likely to be a coalition, and therefore there are likely to be difficulties in putting forward a tough series of policies.”
Officials of all the major opposition parties, and the ruling HSP, say that they agree the country has to create a free market to revive jits moribund economy. Already, the government has allowed many small state-owned firms to go bankrupt. And earlier this year, it cut many state subsidies. As a result, rents for state housing rose by an average of 35 per cent.
The three major opposition parties have pledged to speed up the move towards a free market. At the same time, they have promised to provide a social security net, including retraining for those who lose their jobs when unprofitable state enterprises go bankrupt. Economists say that, if the new government suspends state subsidies for unprofitable firms,
more than 100,000 people would be thrown out of work. That is a particularly disturbing prospect for Hungarians, emerging from a Communist system where all workers, officially at least, had jobs. Hungarian and Western observers express skepticism that, without massive foreign aid, any new government will have the resources to cushion most Hungarians from the upheavals that a transformation to a free-market economy will inevitably bring.
Financial Research Ltd.’s Petschnig said that, in the near future, she expects inflation and unemployment to rise dramatically—and to provoke widespread labor unrest. “Then,” she said, “if the new government gives in and raises wages, we will have even higher inflation that will devastate society. If the government does not give in, and refuses to raise wages, it could face a political explosion.” Added Petschnig: “Either way, we are in a very dangerous situation. If people want democracy, it’s not going to come cheap.”
Although all three leading parties have similar economic programs, a fierce rivalry has emerged between the centre-right Alliance of Free Democrats, which was leading the field with 23.1-percent support in the latest opinion poll, and the nationalist Hungarian Democratic Forum, which was second with 21.5 per cent. The liberal Free Democrats have ac-
0 cused the Democratic Forum
1 of having links with reform I Communists, while leaders of
the Democratic Forum complain that their rivals are elit_ ist intellectuals. Both parties 5 appear eager to form a coalition with the Smallholders, a pro-small-business group that is trailing with 17.4 per cent in the latest poll. But the two leading parties also say that they cannot accept one of the Smallholders’ main election pledges: that land which the former Communist regime seized after 1947 be returned to its original owners.
As a result, the post-election period of coalition-building is likely to be an unstable one. Many Hungarian analysts predict that any new government will last no more than two years. Added one Western diplomat: “The most optimistic scenario is that there will be a political shake-out and, after the first government falls, a second election will produce a decisive victory. But there may also be an endemic series of government crises, as in postwar Italy.” For Hungarians, emerging from four decades of Communist rule, stability and prosperity may yet be a distant goal.
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