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.
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.