Hungary: The New Repression

Against the Current, No. 44, May/June 1993

László Andor

HUNGARY STARTED THE year with the prospect of sharpening political battles in the run-up to the elections scheduled for the first half of 1994. While government propaganda does not cease to talk about “the danger from the left,” in order to justify legal measures against the opposition, the real danger arises from a new powerful right wing.

A new bill, clearing a path for reprisals, declares the events of 1956 an international war and the suppressors war criminals, who can be taken to court at any time, regardless of the decades between their alleged crimes and the trial.

For the government, such a law would provide an opportunity to get rid of some leading left politicians, like Gyula Horn, member of parliament and president of the Socialist Party (MSZP)—a party that is growing. Horn played a completely insignificant role in 1956 as a volunteer on János Kádár’s side [the party faction that suppressed the Hungarian revolution with the aid of Soviet tanks–ed.], became a foreign minister in 1989 and is presently one of the country’s most popular politicians.

For some extremist groups of veterans behind the ruling Democratic Forum (MDF), the main targets are some former, now aged politicians, one of whom Gyorgy Marosán, an outstanding figure of the Hungarian labor movement—died last December at the age of eighty-four.

As a young baker in the 1930s, Marosán participated actively in the trade union movement, affiliated with the social-democratic party in an era when the Communist party was ilk-gal. In the post-war years he became the most energetic leader on the social-democratic left, playing a crucial role in the unification of the social-democratic and Communist parties in 1948.

The emerging Stalinist regime put Marosán in prison for six years, from 1950 to 1956. In November 1956 he became a member of Kádár’s government, which was supported by Moscow and Peking to suppress the October uprising. As a government minister and a leading figure of the new Communist party (MSZMP), he played a primary role in reorganizing the social forces loyal to socialism. But in 1%2, when he saw Kádár’s tendencies toward one-person leadership, he resigned all his posts and withdrew from politics.

Marosán wrote half a dozen books about his political experience, and remained a most interesting as well as popular personality. In 1989, when he saw capitalism being restored in Hungary and the rest of Eastern Europe, he joined the reorganizing MSZMP and gave a keynote speech at the first congress of the old-new party. Soon he became one of the main targets of right-wingers—including several members of parliament—who urge retaliation for the suppression of the 1956 uprising by demanding restoration of the death penalty for some former politicians.

Retaliation and the Crisis

Meanwhile Gyula Horn, together with another leading MSZP politician and vice-chairman of the parliament, Matyás Szürös, may become victims of a case that tries to criminalize the transfer of hard currency by the old Communist party to Third World Communists and sympathizers through Moscow before the middle 1980s. The case of these “rolling dollars,” and other campaigns against the opposition, are supposed to draw the attention of the media and the people from the inertia of the government and the appalling economic situation illustrated by figures published at the end of 1992.

Compared to 1980, roughly when chronic stagnation in Hungary began, the level of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and of consumption was 12% lower in 1992. The level of investment decreased by 30% during this period, while industrial production and construction amounts to two-thirds of 1980 figures. Through 1989, however, the country had experienced slow growth or stagnation with increasing social differentiation, while the real losses took place in the last three years when industrial production decreased by 36%!

The government in fact promised growth or zero decline for 1992, but increase in GDP is likely to remain a promise in 1993 also. Even if some growth occurs in the near future, unemployment will unavoidably approach one million this year. By the end of 1992 official unemployment figures exceed 640,000, which is 12% of the labor force, as compared to the 1-2% in early 1990.

Despite many forecasts about “hot autumn? and “hot winters,” the discontent of the people has not yet turned into mass industrial action or popular initiatives. Tremendous apathy “and emerged soon after people became disappointed with the style and performance of the government in 1990. Partly as a consequence of the nazi-type ideas appearing at the top of the ruling MDF, a shift is occurring. But whenever fascist or racist tendencies appear, the government’s automatic answer is that “the danger from the left is far greater.”

Politics and Privatization

For both the government and the liberal opposition, “social demagogy” i.e. social struggle and left opposition) is the worst imaginable possibility. And the cases of this are slowly increasing: Recently, having finished a hopeless hunger strike, leaders of the Alliance of Citizens Below the Poverty Line (LAESZ) launched a campaign to collect the signatures needed for a referendum to dissolve parliament and call a general election.

All major political parties condemned this referendum initiative, except the MSZP which leaves participation in the campaign up to its individual members. Although the signatures are likely to be gathered, various state institutions can delay the process until Spring 1994, when the elections are due anyhow.

Meanwhile government parties are making desperate efforts to strengthen their social bases and support. Privatization, which is supposed to create a new domestic capitalist class, is not taking place fast enough from their point of view. In 1992 approximately one billion forints (under $20 million) worth of state property was privatized, but some 70% was sold to foreigners. At present foreign ownership amounts to 7% of the competitive sector.

In the countryside the government suffered a major defeat in 1992, when only 4-5% of the land of collective farms was withdrawn by the newly entitled owners—the original vision of the right-wing parties having been to turn agriculture into a sector of individual farmers. Agricultural production is falling in any case, and food prices have nearly reached Western European levels.

The activity of Christmas soup kitchens last year far exceeded that of 1991; reports have been published about over seventy, who can travel free by train, going from Budapest to the border and back just to be in a warm place.

With insufficient social support, the national media remains the government’s only hope to improve the chances of retaining office in 1994. The siege of the television and radio goes on, aimed at the removal of the presidents of these institutions, appointed in 1990 by a six-party agreement, and their replacement by figures servile to the government.

Last December the minister of justice suspended Elemér Hankiss, head of television, and two of his colleagues, saying that an inquiry found financial irregularities in the operation of the institution. Ironically, the inquiry took place the day after the suspension, and the day before it was publicly justified by the ministry.

The Old-New Purge Polities

The battle for the media is widely regarded as a violation of the freedom of the press, and reminds the older generation of the style of the early 1950s. Together with the case of the “rolling dollars” this may be the beginning of political trials in Hungary. Such tendencies, together with some new elements of the right wing’s propaganda, repeatedly shock a large part of the population, but certainly there is a considerable part of the population that subscribes to these government campaigns.

It would therefore be very premature to rule out the possibility of this government remaining in office next year. The situation seems to resemble that of Britain in 1992, when decisive sections of the electorate had ample reason to vote against the government but not enough reasons to vote for that opposition.

According to opinion polls, the most popular party in Hungary at present is the Alliance of Young Democrats (FIDESZ), affiliated to the Liberal International, with nearly one-third of the vote. This is neither a likely nor desirable result of next year’s elections: Despite its popularity FIDESZ has not yet won a by-election, while even MSZP, whose popularity has been declining, won two seats in the last two years.

FIDESZ has the lowest membership among the parties in parliament and little local organization. This can be important when an election campaign requires thousands of activists. The party suffers from the one-person dictatorship of Viktor Orbán, who keeps a certain distance from the adult liberal party Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ). He also shows readiness for a future coalition with the present government parties in which Orbán, who always mentions the outstanding expertise of his party, offers quicker privatization and faster withdrawal of the state from the economy and society in general.

While political attention is directed to the parties and the media war, very little is happening to reorganize the resistance and representation of civil society. Nor do the regional circumstances, full of national hostilities, seem to favor the development of a democratic alternative to the nationalist and liberal currents.

The only thing that most Westerners know about Hungary—that “it is slightly better there than in other countries of the region”—may remain the case, but just barely.

May-June 1993, ATC 44