A public opinion survey about János Kádár and the Kádár regime from 1989

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on public opinion research in the Kádár regime. There was little reader response to it, most likely because a few hours later on the same day I published the speeches of Péter Feldmájer and Ronald S. Lauder at the Plenary Assembly of the World Jewish Congress in Budapest. I suggest that you take a look at it because today I’m returning to the subject.

If I were living in Budapest I would have access to the Open Society Archives at the Central European University where these old  public opinion poll results are stored. But since I don’t live there I have to rely on a summary of one of these sociological studies that appeared in Origo. The study is from 1989; it seeks to understand the reasons for the popularity of the Kádár regime. The Origo journalist picked this particular year because by then, very close to the anticipated regime change, people had little reason to worry about any possible consequences of their answers.

As a point of reference, in 2001 53% of Hungarian adults thought that the years between World War II and the change of regime in 1989 were the happiest time in Hungarian history. By 2008 62% thought so.

According to a study right after the death of János Kádár (July 1989), 50-60% of adults judged Kádár’s role in Hungarian history in a positive light. Moreover, this was the opinion not only of people with minimal educational attainment but of highly educated people as well. When asked what they liked about Kádár they pointed to his modest, puritanic lifestyle and his informality. 87% declared that their impression of him was always positive. They considered him “one of the great benefactors of the Hungarian people” and “the greatest personality in Hungarian politics.”

What did people appreciate in the old regime? That education and health care were “free” and that the state provided pensions for everybody. People insisted that all these benefits should remain even after the regime change “despite the demand for a multi-party system and a market economy.”

Fortepan 1985

Photo of new prefab houses in Budapest, 1985 / Fortepan.hu

The respondents appreciated the steadily rising living standards, especially noticeable in the 1970s after the introduction of the 1968 economic reform (New Economic Mechanism). In 1987 the sociologists asked people what conveniences they expected to be part of their everyday lives. Well over 90% of the population took it for granted that they would have bathrooms, ready hot water, and a refrigerator. 71% lived in apartments with central heating; almost 60% had automatic washing machines and record players and took family holidays. But only 44% of the families had a car or a colored television set. And getting a telephone line was close to impossible. Only 37% of the families had telephones.

When the Horn government was forced to introduce an austerity program in 1995 (the so-called Bokros-csomag, named after Lajos Bokros, minister of finance) it cost the socialists dearly. In 1998 they lost the election. Viktor Orbán, the new prime minister, promptly announced that every family should have “three rooms, three children, and four wheels,” meaning a car. He was appealing to the Hungarian yearning for a better, more comfortable life.

The later Kádár years were marked by an understanding between the rulers and the ruled. MSZMP and the state would leave the population more or less alone; in exchange for that privilege, the population would give up its ability to exercise political rights. “This compromise for twenty years was a success,” the authors of the study concluded.

In December 1989, that is, after the establishment of the Third Republic on October 23, the team of sociologists asked the respondents what issues would determine which political party they would vote for. They had to list these issues in order of importance. This is the list the group as a whole ended up with: (1) living standards, (2) freedom, (3) independence,(4) democracy, (5) equality, (6) socialism, and (7) capitalism.

The compromise between the rulers and the ruled in the Kádár era made a lasting impression on the Hungarian population. Nostalgia for the Kádár regime is not only growing among those who experienced it firsthand but is being “inherited” by those who were either small children before 1990 or not even born by then. And their priorities are not all that different from the priorities of the respondents in 1989.

Freedom was never the centerpiece of their demands. That pretty well explains the fact that, although the current government has severely limited the democratic rights of the people, there is no great resistance. Fidesz’s popularity in the last two years or so hasn’t dropped  all that much. But if the Orbán government is unable to raise living standards it might find itself in trouble. And if people wake up to the widespread corruption and visible signs of ill-gotten wealth, there might be a change in public sentiment. Kádár won the hearts and minds of the people in part by not being ostentatious. So, if I were Viktor Orbán I might dial back some of those projects that set the prime minister and his coterie of friends apart from the rest of the population. A private football stadium might be too much. Or those tobacconist shops that can make families millionaires. The “have-nots” rarely believe that the “haves” deserve all their toys.

If the economy doesn’t turn around, there will be nothing to give to those who expect a visible improvement in their standard of living.  Then we might see a change in the present acceptance of Viktor Orbán’s growing dictatorial governing style. The question is when the patience of the Hungarians with their mindset inherited from the Kádár regime will run out.

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69 comments

  1. I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again after watching the news on “North Korean State TV” aka M1 – this is just drivel repeated again and again …

    And re the jolly numbers for economics:

    Where are those 1 million new jobs – there’s nothing real and nothing on the horizon …
    Just more than a dozen of new taxes – when every other state is trying to get rid of those “special taxes” that often cost more than they bring in …
    And already there is talk of more new taxes – idiotic!

  2. Gross government debt, calculated by the Maastricht criteria as a % of the GDP
    at the end of the 1st quarter of

    2010: 82.0%
    2011: 83.6%
    2012: 80.0%
    2013: 82.2% [+10.5% from the private pension funds]

  3. By the way Johnny I’m not quite sure why are you sooo happy. The fact that the council abrogated the Excessive Deficit Procedure (EDP) for Hungary means that they believe that Orban will keep the deficit low. So with the falling GDP guess who’s going to plug the holes in the budget? You, Johnny. And guess where will the new EU moneys for the infrastructure development will end up? Orban’s college roommate’s (Lajos Simicska) pockets. Not yours. Aaa, aaa.

    Also you kept saying that the evil EU wants something in exchange for this. What do think? What did Orban give up for this? Gay marriage?

  4. Well, obviously the reasons are many and complex, but having come to live in Hungary from the UK in 1982 (and am still here), I am unsurprised that so many people regard the 70s-80s as their happiest time. While I could not say if I would put the clock back, there were indeed many aspects of life which I greatly miss.

  5. Not too much OT:

    The Forint today lost most of its gain – now it’s back at 290 to the €.

    Maybe some speculators were at work ?

  6. Mutt :
    The Kadar era sucked …

    There was one advantage of the Kadar era. Hungarians were able to blame their passivity on the terror and the oppression.

    But could you or someone else try to recall to what extent people were “active” in 1989 and 1990? I do not mean the ONE demonstration, I know that many people went there but more generally? And whether there was some understanding that democracy in the Western interpretation is meant as rule BY the people (active) and not FOR the people (receiving “democracy” and “living standards”).

    I am not surprised that people now consider the later Kadar years a good time, but it is saying more about today than about the Kadar years, in particular if the younger generation thinks so too. Most likely these young people would also like to keep their phones. Even with the relatively low quality of social security, the reforms in the late 1980s were necessary because of the financial untenability of Kadar economics. Hungary was quite indebted at that time also.

  7. @MM:

    Could you be more specific – what do you miss from the 80s ?

    I’m really interested in this – I cam to Hungary (as a visitor) in 1997 for the first time (didn’t like those socialist countries at all …) and met my wife in 2006 – but she has nothing good to remember from Kadar’s time!

  8. The target of the Orban regime is to ensure the Viktator stays in power in perpetuity and that enough of the Fidesz sheep benefit financially and ego-wise from his 20 year Reich. As long as those targets are achieved they are happy; as a collective they are too thick and too lazy to set up a fully-functioning dictatorship. As long as the majority of the population remain apathetic, as they did during the Kadar period, then really they don’t need to ratch up the oppression.

  9. Yes, Kirsten – this is something that many people either never realised or have forgotten:

    “Hungary was quite indebted at that time also.”

    The whole Eastern block plus Yugoslavia in the 90s was living on borrowed money from the West! Their economies were total crap, out of date products and an ecological disaster!

    If this had gone on a few more years it would have ended in total chaos …

    Some examples from the DDR:

    The Trabant was issued a four stroke engine, experts called this: Putting a heart pacemaker into a mummy!

    Honecker proudly presented the “One Megabit Memory Chip” – when Japan was already producing 16 Mbit chips …

    Some time in the 80s I was looking for a tv set – and saw two types: the new fully transistorised ones and a cheap “Universum” made for West Germany in the DDR, still using many valves …

    I’m sure the Hungarian industry was on a similar level – no wonder most factories were either closed after 1989 or had to be totally modernised – with foreign investments of course …

  10. Interesting bit from parameter.hu (Hungarian web portal in Slovakia) via Facebook.

    http://bit.ly/17tWnbP

    Party preferences among Hungarians living in Slovakia.

    Roughly 50% Fidesz 10% Jobbik and 40 percent opposition (DK, E14, MSZP, LMP).
    The most interesting part is the DK’s 15%.

    This could be interesting for many reasons. This is based on polls where people have no interest in lying (they are not afraid). Also the overall composition (pro/anti Fidesz) is basically same as in the “Motherland” so the big fuss about the voting rights doesn’t see to work. And the ice cream actually can lick back (Hungarian saying). The Fidesz may even lose votes.

    It seems Hungarians in the neighboring countries are more responsible. They don’t want an overbearing chauvinist government from Budapest tell them what to do.

    Disclaimer: I can’t find the original article and of course I don’t know how many of these people can/will actually vote.

  11. In order to try to get rid of odd spams that get through I followed your advice and closed comments on posts that are older than fourteen days. Let’s see what happens.

  12. Thank you but the location is not as important as that these prefab houses symbolized the rapid improvement of living standards however modest it was. Viktor Orbán’s family moved into one of these buildings in Székesfehérvár and Orbán still remembers the pleasure of being able to lie in the bathtub and read. In Felcsút they had no bathroom.

  13. Eva S. Balogh :
    Orbán still remembers the pleasure of being able to lie in the bathtub and read. In Felcsút they had no bathroom.

    … until they installed running water a year later.

  14. Eva S. Balogh :

    Mutt :

    Eva S. Balogh :
    Orbán still remembers the pleasure of being able to lie in the bathtub and read. In Felcsút they had no bathroom.

    … until they installed running water a year later.

    Really? I didn’t know that.

    Well, he didn’t want to get wet in the tub …

  15. Johnny Boy :

    LwiiH :
    Domestic press? What domestic press. I think you’ve mistaken the Fidesz propaganda for a domestic press core. I vote that the books have been cooked.

    Yes of course. Index, Origo, portfolio.hu, and all other portals are only Fidesz propaganda. Numbers published by OECD and Eurostat, and press conferences held by the European Commission are Fidesz propaganda too.
    Of course, you can think whatever you want, but what is the use of totally bullshitting yourself?

    Tell me Johnny Boy, do you know anything about forcasting or statistics, economics? Do you have any idea on how budgeting in the large works? Where do you think the data comes from that feeds all these different forecasting model? You know what they say, garbage in, garbage out. And even if the data is pure, these are economic forecast… it’s predicting the future! If anyone other than Economist do this type of thing we throw then in the nut house! Sure these agencies do their own audits and use their own models but without proper checks and balances on the organizations producing the raw data… Naw, these numbers can’t be cooked.. no way, yet Greece got into the € and now just about everyone agrees that the numbers were cooked. I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that the EU knows the Hungarian books are cooked which is why they’ve been so reluctant to let them off the hook but how then how would you know that. It’s not like they are going to come out and say this as 1) it’s very difficult to prove and 2) it’s a very unprofessional thing to speak about in the press. But yet all the signs are here and you don’t have to look hard to see them.

    Speaking of Kadar and the effects of communism, a Hungarian friend of mine brought up the differences in professional attitudes between Hungarians and the country he now lives/works in. Eva, I imagine you can see which country I’m talking about. It really does seem that the there is truth to the adage, we pretend to work, you pretend to pay brought on by the social deal made between the public and the ruling class.

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