Politikatörténeti Intézet

After twenty years of democracy, Hungary is heading back to its authoritarian past

I have the feeling that we will have a short lull before the storm, so I can wander a bit from politics. Of course, most things that happen these days in Hungary are about politics, at least indirectly, something those young students who demonstrated against the government’s educational policies have yet to realize. They keep repeating that they are civilians who have nothing to do with politics. How long will it take them to understand that they are wrong?

I will take this opportunity to summarize a lecture by the academician Ignác Romsics, a respected historian of the twentieth century. (His book on that subject is available in English.) He is considered to be a fairly conservative man and therefore his lecture reported in today’s Népszava is noteworthy. Romsics is trying to set things straight at a time when the government is encouraging a re-evaluation of the Horthy regime (1920-1945). Although Viktor Orbán and his entourage deny it, the signs are clear: a rehabilitation of the Horthy regime is under way.

Ignác Romsics / Nol.hu

Ignác Romsics / Nol.hu

First of all, it is noteworthy that Romsics delivered his lecture in the Politikatörténeti Intézet (Institute of the History of Politics) which is under attack by the current government. One reason for Viktor Orbán’s dislike of the institute is that before the change of regime it was called the Párttörténeti Intézet (Institute of Party History), and thus the historians connected with the institute are politically suspect in his eyes. The institute has a large library and an extensive archive, considered to be a private collection, which the government recently nationalized. This move is especially worrisome because private individuals’ archives are also stored there. The institute right now is fighting for its survival and for its archives. So, giving a lecture at this particular institute is a kind of political statement, especially from a historian who is not a flaming liberal.

The institute began a lecture series in December and Romsics’s lecture on “The modern Hungarian political regimes” was the fifth in the series. I’m happy to announce that our friend Gábor Egry, who just published a lengthy comment on demographic changes in Hungary and Romania after 1918, will be the next to lecture on the “Nationality problems in Hungary in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” The earlier lectures are available on video on the website of the institute and I assume that soon enough we will be able to listen to Romsics’s lecture as well.

So, let’s look at Romsics’ overview of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century Hungarian political history.

As far as the period of dualism (1867-1918) is concerned, Hungarians like to talk about it as a time of peace and prosperity (boldog békeidők). It was a time of fantastic economic growth, when everything was just perfect. But was it? No it wasn’t because there was no representative government, there was no democracy, and liberalism was greatly constrained. The Emperor-King Franz Joseph I’s power was much wider than that of other western rulers. He influenced foreign policy and defense decisions, and the parliament was able to vote on a piece of legislation only if it was approved by the king ahead of time. Another characteristic of the regime was that very few people had the right to vote. In 1910, at the last election before the war, only 6% of the adult population was able to cast a vote–and not by secret ballot. During the dualistic period government after government had a two-thirds majority, and it happened only once that such a government was removed by a vote of no-confidence. But the victorious opposition had to promise the king before being able to form a new government that it wouldn’t touch the dualistic structure.

During the Károlyi period (1918-1919) no elections were held, but a new electoral law would have made 50-60% of the population eligible to vote, including women. During the Soviet Republic practically the entire adult population had the vote, except it didn’t mean much because of the one-party system.

After the fall of the Soviet Republic the first election took place in 1920 on the basis of the electoral law of the Friedrich government (August 7-November 24, 1919): 40% of the adult population could vote, and vote secretly. This brought about a revolutionary change. The peasantry constituted 60% of the country’s population prior to 1920 but the party representing them had only one or two representatives in a pre-war parliament of 413 members. Now suddenly their number swelled to 30 in a downsized parliament of 219.

One of the first moves of the Horthy regime was to reduce the number of eligible voters. In the larger cities the vote was secret but everywhere else it was again open. By introducing a new electoral system the governments of the interwar period had two-thirds majorities and thus their perpetuation was ensured. The powers of Governor Miklós Horthy were not extensive, but such powers were not really necessary. The system worked without his direct influence.

During both the era of dualism and the period between the two world wars, Hungary had an authoritarian political system. But during the Horthy period even the equal rights of citizens were trampled on by the so-called Jewish laws.

After World War II there was a brief period of “democratic experimentation” that was over by 1949. During the Rákosi and Kádár periods the “role of parliament was only formal.” Real decisions were made within the party apparatus. Parliament had even less of a role to play than it did in the Horthy regime, in which parliamentary debates at least had a moderating influence on the government.

However, and this is an interesting point, “in the late Kádár regime, after the 1985 elections because of the new election law 10% of the members of parliament were elected in opposition to the communist party candidates. It is true that some of these so-called independents were fellow travelers or even party members, but here and there one could hear speeches in parliament that would have been unimaginable earlier.” While “we can certainly label the Rákosi and the early Kádár regimes dictatorships, the late Kádár era can be called authoritarian only.”

This is an important statement, especially in light of Fidesz’s penchant for making no distinction between the Stalinist Rákosi regime, the early Kádár period, and the last five years of the one party-system that was already being challenged.

As for the situation under the second Orbán government, “there is no dictatorship in Hungary today because the elimination of the separation of powers hasn’t taken place, there is still a multi-party system, and there is still media freedom. At the same time the steps the government has taken in the last three years have led to such a concentration of power that we can say that Hungary has started on the road toward an authoritarian political system.” I do hope that the world listens.