Two elections in Hungary*: 1922 and 2012

I mentioned earlier that the power outage that resulted from storm Sandy allowed me to brush up on some Hungarian history. Among other books, I reread Ignác Romsics’s biography of István Bethlen (Bethlen István: Politikai életrajz [Budapest: Osiris, 1999]). It is a good book that was mostly written in the 1980s, that is, during the “soft dictatorship” of János Kádár. Its publication was delayed, however, because the state withdrew the generous subsidies it had been giving to its publishing houses. Publishers became strapped for funds.

One may ask why talk about history again. Let’s study the present and look forward to the future. Yes, but unfortunately what is going on now with Viktor Orbán’s concerted efforts to devise an electoral law that would ensure his enduring power harks back to the activities of István Bethlen. Recent comments about keeping the uneducated and the unwashed away from the polling booths echo István Bethlen’s profoundly undemocratic views.

There can be no doubt that a serious “rehabilitation” of the Horthy regime is underway, although I should add that such an attempt is not entirely new. It only got intensified during the second Orbán government in its search for historical models. And it seems that this was the best they could find.

The pressure on historians to conform is not insignificant. Even men like Ignác Romsics, while rejecting the erection of a statue to Miklós Horthy, gingerly suggested that if the government wants to erect a statue of somebody from that era they could perhaps opt for István Bethlen. We are scraping the bottom of the barrel here because making a democrat out of Bethlen would be a practically impossible task.

Here are a few quotations from Bethlen himself from his “program speech” of 1921 after he became prime minister. While emphasizing the need for the restoration of certain basic civic rights, Bethlen also warned that “the government must ensure that the destructive elements that in the past tossed the state into such turmoil will never gain the upper hand.” That is, the liberals and the social democrats will be forever barred from a meaningful political role. Sound familiar? How often we hear today that the liberals and socialists have no place in Hungarian society and should never be in a position of political leadership. Romsics very rightly observed in connection with this Bethlen speech that “this is a peculiar interpretation of democracy because he denied the notion of the will of the majority and instead emphasized the importance of the elite.” He made it clear that “real democracy ensures the leadership of the intelligent classes.” Again, all this is echoed in some of the Fidesz arguments in connection with the planned registration requirements that would act as a filter to get rid of the undesirable elements.

Autocracy /

How could Bethlen ensure that only the “desirable elements” could lead the country? By devising an electoral law that would produce predictable results. Here is a brief summary of the history of the electoral system in the first half of the twentieth century.

Prior to 1918 a mere 6% of the population had the right to vote and all ballots had to be cast in the open. Universal and secret elections were introduced only after the October 1918 revolution, i.e. during the brief democratic period so maligned by the current regime. The first post-war elections that took place in 1920 were held on the basis of this law which entitled 40% of the population to vote. The composition of the parliament changed considerably as a result. Middle-sized farmers and urban Christian middle class people were represented much more broadly than before. When Bethlen became prime minister, one of his important tasks was to force these elements out of the legislature and bring back the “historical upper classes.” According to Bethlen, universal and secret balloting led to “the rule of rough masses, and those nations that are ruled by the masses are destined to decay.”

Since Bethlen couldn’t have hoped for the parliament to approve his plan, he resorted to using the instrument of executive order by which the new electoral law was introduced in March 1922. He reduced the number of eligible voters from 3 million to 2.4 million. Of the 600,000 voters who were disenfranchised 550,000 were women because Bethlen raised the voting age for women to 30. In addition, they had to have at least a sixth-grade education. The smart guys, however, could vote at the age of 24 and needed only a fourth-grade education. By this move he reduced the percentage of eligible voters from 40% to 28.4%. That by itself, if compared to France, Italy, Belgium, or Poland, was not outrageous, but it was also not quite satisfactory from Bethlen’s point of view. It wouldn’t have ensured absolutely foolproof results for the governing party.

Thus he resorted to the pre-1918 practice of open balloting in the countryside. Only in Budapest and in the larger cities was voting secret (23% of the population). Just to give you an idea of the result of this new electoral law, Bethlen’s party in 1922 won 60% of the votes where there was open balloting while it received only 23% of the votes in districts where the voting was secret. There was no other country in Europe where there was open voting! Hungary was unique, with a reputation that goes with such undemocratic practices.

Yes, the system was foolproof . In 1922 Bethlen’s Unity Party got 58% of the vote, in 1926 65%, and in 1935 67%. Viktor Orbán could be truly envious of Bethlen’s feat.

The composition of the House changed immediately. The percentage of smallholders in parliament was halved while the number of aristocrats doubled. The social democrats who boycotted the 1920 elections received 25 seats; because of a deal between the Hungarian Social Democratic Party and Bethlen they could enter the race only in Budapest and in larger cities in exchange for somewhat freer political activity. Even this way, in Budapest and environs the social democrats received 43% of the votes. So, the claim that the overwhelming majority of the post-revolutionary population sympathized with the  right is a myth.

As is clear from some of the numbers cited above, only open balloting could do the trick for Bethlen, and surely Viktor Orbán cannot resort to that method. So, currently the Fidesz-KDNP government is madly looking for all sorts of ways to achieve results comparable to those of Bethlen’s electoral law. Restrict television and Internet campaigning, require registration, import voters, and who knows what else they will come up with.

So, Bethlen is the man who is being put forward as a more acceptable choice for veneration than Horthy. In the twenty-first century. Pitiful. But if the opposition is not careful, the country might end up with an electoral system that will bring foolproof results to Viktor Orbán just as Bethlen’s excellent instrument of political control managed to do ninety years ago.


*There is a famous novel by Kálmán Mikszáth (1847-1910) about electoral fraud in the post-1867 period entitled Két választás Magyarországon (Two elections in Hungary). He knew what he was talking about. He was also a member of parliament. One can read more about him and his books in Loránt Czigány’s History of Hungarian Literature available on the Internet.


  1. Eva, these voting restrictions (I never heard of them before) sound really crazy – typical for the 19th century maybe.

    I really hope that no one from Fidesz is reading this right now – they might get some crazy ideas, like a return to the good old times …

    I’ve read about the 3-class-voting laws in 19th century Germany, but this is surely “better”.

  2. “and surely Viktor Orbán cannot resort to that method”

    Probably a step too far* even for OV, but he will do everything short of that.

    (*but only because of the EU – were Hungary not in the EU, I wouldn’t have put even this beyond him)

  3. wolfi – in the UK (and for most States in the US for the presidential election), where the ‘first past the post/winner takes all’ system is used, most of us are effectively disenfranchised. Your vote only counts if you live in a handful of marginal constituencies (or even fewer ‘swing states’). I have been voting for over 40 years and not once has my vote counted.

  4. There is a huge difference between the years 1922 and 2012 – to the detriment of the present situation. In 1922, there was a robust, SELF-MADE capitalist class [let me mention that the majority of bankers had some Jewish background and 40.5% of the manufacturers were Jewish in 1920]. There had been a meritocratic selection in the process of their evolution.

    If they wished they had the money to finance newspapers, theaters or even political parties that were not in line with governmental policy. Most of them followed the dictates of the strong class consciousness that was prevalent in Hungary, and did not do so, but the moderating potential was there.

    Now, most oligarchs have reached their status through political connections, not in the real economy. During the crucial period of privatization between 1990 and 1994, the “right-wing” government preferred to privatize to people they suspected had right-wing ideology. Gyurcsany and Kapolyi are the exception. Szeles, supporting the most extreme nationalist causes [just watch some of the antisemitic programs on Echo TV] is the rule.

  5. You can watch the movie “141 perc a befejezetlen mondatból” on youtube, made from Tibor Dery’s novel at

  6. When Hillary Clinton met Bajnai, Mesterházy and Schiffer on 30 June 2011 in a closed meeting, she apparently promised them that if the electoral system was violated by the Orbán Government, the US State Department would intervene. If she meant what she pledged, we are certainly drifting towards a new démarche.

  7. London Calling!

    A prosperous future for any country lies in the unity and size of its population. For demographic balance you have to ensure you have a working population that can support those who are retired and require social support.

    A pretty obvious observation n’est pas? Look at China?

    In England we are very happy – more than very happy – that Hungarians, inter alia, form part of our tax-paying workforce. The more the merrier. We can – and do – have a more prosperous society. We have many many denominations of ‘economic’ refugees – and we welcome them.

    They are pure solid human GDP!

    Hungary’s future lies in a united population – and in its sizeable Roma sector.

    The election should enfranchise – and unite – the WHOLE population.

    And yes this will ‘balance’ the Roma’s representation in parliament – that’s what democracy means Orban!

    The flat tax has wreaked havoc amongst the poor in Hungary – and it has affected the Roma disproportionately. Some 70% unemployment.

    This is sheer lunacy – to have a large sector of your population idle – while the most able and employable come to London!

    A country needs to invest in its people – education and support.

    And create jobs in a healthy business environment – not artificial ‘non-jobs’ that Matolcsy has created and eats up more government spending.

    Smaller government – not bigger.

    Hungary’s future lies in broadening the voter base, not narrowing it.

    And investing in its people – They are pure solid human GDP!



  8. election law bruhaha projects a divided anarchistic Hungarian nation.
    the shrinking camp decent Hungarians can not respect the feuding leaders of the parties.
    their hateful messages are a shame to a civilized nation.
    the land of Ferenc Deak is not pacified.
    it is the ground where political extremism and violence blooms.
    the party leaders are enemies not partners.
    the citizens are poisoned by them.
    if Hungary wants to stay an EU member, the politics must be European and not Asian.

  9. Perhaps the books that I consulted also mislead me, but I also would have thought that Bethlen is a less controversial figure than Horthy. He was a conservative Hungarian noble and as far as I know he never pretended otherwise. The political situation stabilised in Hungary under his rule. The problem is that the Horthy years with their uninterrupted mourning after Great Hungary are seen as a model society and that it is suggested that what is (only) political ideology (and as such nothing spectacular, certainly not in Central Europe after WWI) is a national trait, and a specifically important one.

    I hope Gordon Bajnai and the people surrounding him will continue thinking about the “national question”. And without a re-definition of the nation, which is centered around nationalist and elitist thinking of the 19th century (even in otherwise liberal people where it surfaces when thinking about Roma, Jews, etc.), it will be difficult to build deeper (and better understood) support for “democracy”.

  10. Kirsten: “Perhaps the books that I consulted also mislead me, but I also would have thought that Bethlen is a less controversial figure than Horthy. He was a conservative Hungarian noble and as far as I know he never pretended otherwise. The political situation stabilised in Hungary under his rule.”

    That is one aspect of his activities. The other trait of his unfortunately is his profoundly undemocratic political views. The opinions that are expressed here are not really my own because I never did any independent research on his career. This is Romsics’s opinion. As for the details of his election law they also come from a very recent publication of Romsics in the September-October issue of Rubicon.

  11. London Calling!

    Completely O/T!

    When I was in Gyor last month I tried to get a 6-hole shepherds flute in the music shops there.

    I’m sure you know the 6-hole flute is the mainstay of Hungarian music – well moldvai csángó music – well ok – music of Hungary and Romania.

    One of the shops was really an order shop – you have to order any instruments for later collection. He kept very little stock.

    I would expect the flute to be easily available, because Hungary is in the forefront of teaching music to children? Isn’t it?

    No! The flutes are unavailable because when the shop gets them from the makers – presumably the shepherds! – he has to put 27% VAT on them – and they become too pricey. So he hasn’t a clue where I could get one.

    And Expensive? I should say!

    They are very expensive – and as rare as rocking-horse manure.

    One of my partners nieces wanted to start playing the recorder – and the only tutors available in Hungarian – were published in 1961 or thereabouts!

    We found a Hungarian version of an English one eventually – published in England in about 2006. Nothing like it exists in Hungary.

    You can find tens of tutors for recorders in England – many with CDs that accompany the simplest of tunes.

    I found a tutor for the 6-hole flute in Hungary eventually! With CD! Published in 2011. Just one – no choice.

    So ‘Have-Music-No-Pipe’!

    They are very rare in music shops in Hungary.

    No wonder these traditions and culture are dying out – if you can’t get the education materials?

    And I have issues with the so-called ‘wonderful’ szolfézs – it is a barrier to learning the folk music of Hungary.

    Musicians in Hungary look down their noses if you want to play folk music.

    The snobs will only contemplate ‘classical’!

    (And yes I know Liszt Ferenc pinched folk tunes for his ‘classical’ music – as did Brahms.)

    You really need to keep your traditions alive – in a digital, social networking, YouTube, online sort of world.

    Really you do.



  12. A historian cannot judge on one simple criterion. And democracy is an especially tricky one, as it is seldom a reality in the literal sense. A host of factors should to be taken into account really – political, economic, social, cultural and even moral. Moreover, everything is relative, so comparisons must be made to what came before and after, and to what happened elsewhere. And ultimately, I believe, to what one thinks could have happened.

    I suppose Romsics may feel that Bethlen created stability in a situation where it was much needed, that he checked excesses and that there were some positive developments on the long term (like education). He might also argue that Hungary in the twenties (Bethlen left office in 1931) did not so bad compared with, say, Rumania. And it certainly is worthwhile to redress the unbalanced view of Bethlen’s achievements in socialist historiography.

    But while all this is probably true, and while I respect Romsics contribution to the discussion, I don’t think an argument on these lines would convince me. I just can’t see enough long term positive developments to condone all that is negative in the Bethlen years, and I think the developments in the 20s and 30s are a rather strong continuum. But ultimately I think Hungary could have done better – even if there is no way to prove it.

    Still, following this line of reasoning Bethlen’s time may be compared positively to the present. That does not mean the situation was better. It is a relative judgement, taking in account the broad front of negative developments in the last few years, and that Hungary could have done so much better in the given situation. The human factor (cultural, moral) seems exceptionally large right now, seldom have so many bad and immoral choices been made in such a short time. So yes, there is a reason for nostalgia after all.

  13. Leo: “Still, following this line of reasoning Bethlen’s time may be compared positively to the present. That does not mean the situation was better. It is a relative judgement, taking in account the broad front of negative developments in the last few years, and that Hungary could have done so much better in the given situation. The human factor (cultural, moral) seems exceptionally large right now, seldom have so many bad and immoral choices been made in such a short time. So yes, there is a reason for nostalgia after all”

    That was the line of József Debreczeni’s reasoning too when he wrote in one of his articles that Orbán’s plans for Hungary shouldn’t be so much compared to the authoritarian Horthy regime but rather to Gömbös’s vision of a fascist Hungary.

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