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Hungary: two cheers for democracy?

HOW is democracy faring two years into Hungary's first government elected by universal suffrage? Having a hard time of it, it would seem, but narrowly ahead on points.

I have been visiting Hungary annually for many years now, and some of the changes I noticed this year are disturbing. Talking to individuals, I found an almost neurotic sense of insecurity. Almost everyone I visited had had a double steel frame clamped on their front door and door-frame since last year because of the fear of burglaries; almost all multi-occupancy buildings now have their courtyard door locked day and night, with call-buttons against each occupant's name. |Just like back home,' I commented encouragingly, when the subject was raised, but this remark was felt to be in rather bad taste. Equally strong is the sense of job insecurity: with unemployment having risen from almost nothing to over 9% in two years and still rising by about 30,000 a month, literally no-one I met felt secure in their job. There was also a sense that things had happened for random and arbitrary reasons. |Look at me,' said a hospital consultant of some twenty years' standing: |my 20 year old daughter has just joined the Central Bank as a clerk, and her starting salary is twice mine'.

I also noted a marked souring of the political atmosphere. With the coalition Government's popularity in steady decline (the latest Gallup poll suggesting that the coalition partners would now get under 40% of the popular vote), and the political middle-ground firmly occupied by FIDESZ, the liberal Young Democrats party (whose rating now stands at 55%), the Government has been steadily drifting to the right. It has tried to make up for what it has lost in popular support by appointing party men and women to senior posts that were meant to be awarded on merit (|just like the Communists used to', said my Hungarian informants; |Like Mrs. Thatcher used to', thought I). |The time has come to stop talking about our opponents and start talking about our enemies,' said Mr. Csurka, Deputy Parliamentary Leader of the MDF -- the leading coalition party -- a few days ago, and Mr. Antall, the Prime Minister, who was present at the occasion, did not disown him.

What, then, are the principal bones of contention between the Hungarian Government and Opposition? First, the Act of Parliament that takes away the land of Agricultural Producers' Co-operatives from those who cultivate it now, and divides it up among its pre-1949 owners (most of them now in their 70s or 80s), or among their descendents (who mostly have no farming experience). While there was a generally agreed need to split up many co-operatives into smaller, more economic units, they had managed to feed the country, and even produced a large export surplus: what would the effect of the change-over be? In the short run, there is uncertainty about whether the land will be properly cultivated and livestock adequately maintained this year, given that ownership of the land may change hands between sowing and reaping. Also, the law is unclear about how buildings and machinery belonging to the Co-ops are to be shared out between present and future owners: no small matter. In the longer run, there is the real -- and tragic -- possibility that new, urban-based owners of land will just sell it, resulting once in the emergence of landless peasants and large landowners, without even the feudal inhibitions of the previous aristocracy.

An even more contentious issue has been the Zetenyi-Takacs Act introduced by two MDF backbenchers. It would have lifted the statute of limitations on |major crimes' committed by functionaries of the Nazi regimes in power before 1945, and by Communist functionaries after 1948. As surviving officials of Hungarian Nazi governments who have escaped prosecution so far are both rare and likely to be in their dotage, the law was evidently aimed at former Communists. Opposition parties objected to it, but not out of sympathy for the crimes some Communists had undoubtedly committed. The Opposition argued that, by failing to define clearly what crimes would come under the purview of the Act, the door would be opened to a general anti-Communist witch-hunt. As most Hungarians over 35 are ex-Communists of some sort anyway, such a law would only serve to strengthen the already destructive forces in Hungarian society that want to focus on who was to blame, when what the country needs is reconciliation and a forward-looking attitude.

The Act was passed by Parliament, but was then referred by Arpad Goncz, the President of the Republic, to the Constitutional Court, which declared the Act invalid. It is not yet clear whether the Act's sponsors will try to reintroduce it in a modified form or accept defeat gracefully. But there have been ominous rumblings within the MDF (the largest Government party) about the need to get rid of entrenched clauses in the Constitution, and of the Constitutional Court itself.

If challenged to justify my cautious optimism about the future of democracy in Hungary, I would base it on the existence of FIDESZ, an alert and highly respected Opposition party that looks the likeliest candidate to form the next government; on the existence of the constitution with its entrenched clauses needing a two-thirds majority to change them, on the Constitutional Court that can -- and does -- declare Acts of Parliament unconstitutional, and on Hungary's universally respected and popular President, Arpad Goncz, whose limited but significant powers give him the right to refer Acts of Parliament to the Constitutional Court, and to approve or veto certain prime ministerial appointments to key positions in the public services.

A day or two before I left Hungary, I watched a riveting TV programme in the |Crossfire' series, in which an eminent public figure is cross-examined by three journalists for an hour, with no holds barred. That week's victim was Elemer Hankiss, the Director General of Hungarian TV. |It must be clear to you,' said one of the journalists, |that the Prime Minister dislikes you intensely and considers you biassed against his party, and that he will try to remove you from your post if he can. Do you consider this more than a personal threat?' |Any Director General of any national TV system who is not disapproved of and considered biassed by the Prime Minister of the day is simply not doing his job,' replied the unruffled Mr. Hankiss. |And any Prime Minister would find entrenched constitutional clauses, Constitutional Courts and presidential veto powers frustrating, but this is just the time when the rules of our newly designed political game are being tested. If they can stand up to the test, and the government of the day accepts the limits that the constitution imposes on its powers, an essential step will have been taken to secure the future of democracy -- and it will be more secure than if these rules bad not been tested in the first place.'

I hope he will be proved right. In that expectation I offer -- with apologies to E. M. Forster -- two cheers for democracy in Hungary.

Emil Rado is Senior Lecturer in Glasgow University's Department of Adult & Continuing Education.
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Author:Rado, Emil
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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