The 1994 Hungarian General Election

A Test for Democracy in Eastern Europe        

Martyn Rady


        Four years after their defeat in Hungary's first free elections, the Hungarian Socialist Party (HSP) obtained an overwhelming victory in the two-round general election held in May 1994. The HSP increased its share of parliamentary seats from 33 in 1990 to 209, thus giving it an overall majority in the 386-seat, single-chamber legislature.
        The conservative Hungarian Democratic Forum (HDF), which had led the government coalition from 1990 to 1994, fell back from 165 seats to 37. The principal opposition party to the former HDF coalition, the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats (AFD), failed to make the expected electoral breakthrough. Although remaining the second largest party in the parliament, its number of seats fell from 92 to 70. Hungary thus joined several other East European countries in electing to power a party led mainly by former communists.

The Campaign

        According to the Hungarian constitution, general elections take place in Hungary at least every four years. The political parties thus had ample notice to prepare their campaign strategies. The issue which dominated the campaigning was the competence of the incumbent government, particularly with respect to economic policy.
        During the four years since 1990, the HDF-led government had achieved much in terms of building a market economy based on private ownership. Despite the gradualist approach adopted by the government, however, the population experienced over this period a growing sense of social and economic dislocation. High interest and inflation rates, unemployment amounting to 12% of the workforce, and the conspicuous consumption of the new elite of entrepreneurs engendered wide-spread anxiety and dissatisfaction.
        Nostalgia for the social security of the communist period boosted the HSP's appeal. According to an opinion poll held in early 1994, the most important factor behind support for the HSP was the belief that "things were better in the old days when there were jobs and a secure existence."
        The HSP exploited these discontents. In an advertisement published at the beginning of the year, the HSP leader, Gyula Horn, promised that his party would raise the living standards of most sections of the population. During the course of the campaign, however, HSP economic policy became increasingly influenced by LĚszl█ B╚kesi, the party's economics expert and a former finance minister.
        B╚kesi injected a sense of realism into the HSP's economic policy arguing that "the HSP cannot build its policy on the widespread existing social attitude that the average Hungarian was better off under the Kadar (i.e former communist) regime." The HSP program thus eschewed command economics and stood by the continued expansion of the private sector.
        The HSP additionally promised to complete the process of compensating the victims of communism, to restore property confiscated from the churches, and to maintain the tempo of the privatization program. In its overall commitment to market economics, the HSP's official program differed little from those of its main rivals.
        The HSP used its leading members' communist background to the party's advantage. By emphasizing the experience of socialist politicians in government, the HSP also drew attention to the apparent amateurism of its rivals. "Let the experts govern" was the HSP's main slogan.
        During the course of the campaign, the HSP succeeded in presenting itself as a non-ideological party consisting of pragmatists and managers. According to Horn, the popularity of the HSP rested on the fact that it was free from "ideological limitations" and "dealt with no one's past."

Other parties fall short

        The campaigns of the other political parties fell substantially short in terms of electoral appeal and credibility. Rather than confront the HSP on economic policy, the HDF took its position on the high moral ground of politics. The HDF stressed its role as a Christian party which embodied Hungarian national values, and frequently drew attention to the communist past of the HSP leadership.
        These claims sat uneasily with the HDF's previous involvement in property speculation and its attempted imposition of controls on the media in advance of the election. Distrust of the HDF was additionally felt on account of the slowness with which it had distanced itself in 1992 from the extremist and anti-semitic statements of the populist poet and politician, IstvĚn Csurka. The death of the HDF Prime Minister, J█zsef Antall, in December 1993 and the succession of the colorless P╚ter Boross may additionally have weakened the HDF campaign.
        While the HSP was able to maintain a united front on account of the traditions of party discipline and strong central direction inherited from the communist period, its rival suffered from intra-party rivalries and dissensions. The HDF was caught between its "government-wing," comprising mainly pragmatic conservative politicians, and its "party-wing" of nationalists and populists.
        Recent changes in the AFD leadership added to confusion concerning its own ideological direction which wavered in economic policy between radical individualism and corporatist remedies. Bitter feuding within the Independent Smallholders' Party (ISP), a former coalition ally of the HDF, was probably responsible for its loss of sixteen seats in the election.
        The most spectacular collapse of any party in the election campaign involved the Alliance of Young Democrats (AYD). The AYD had led in the opinion polls for much of 1993 and was widely tipped as a partner in any future government coalition. The AYD's reputation as the party of the young, "clean" politicians suffered a major setback with revelations of shady business practices. Moreover, the AYD seemed unable to decide whether it would prefer to join a government-coalition with the HDF or the AFD.

The Electoral System and Its Impact

        The present Hungarian electoral system was designed to facilitate the transition from communism by adding strong legitimacy to the parliament. Yet the system is also intended to prevent the fragmentation of the legislature into small parties.
        The result is an electoral system of outstanding complexity -- if straightforward for voters -- which combines several principles. Of the 386 seats contested in the 1994 election, 176 went to individual candidates in constituencies, 125 were decided by proportional representation in 20 county constituencies and 85 went to the national transfer list.
        The Hungarian general election is held in two rounds, customarily on Sundays. In 1994 the first round was held on 8 May; the second on 29 May. In the first round, candidates in single member constituencies who obtain more than 50% of the votes cast are elected directly to the parliament.
        Only two of 176 seats were won in this way on 8 May. Constituencies where the first round has not yielded a decisive outcome, go on to the second round when there is a straight race either between those who obtained more than 15% of the vote in the first round or the top three candidates from the first round, whichever number is the greater.
        The 125 seats in the 20 county constituencies are given on the basis of proportional representation to those parties which win more than 5% of the vote. The counties differ substantially in terms of their population-size and this affects the number of representatives they may send to the legislature. Thus, Budapest has 24 county seats elected by proportional representation, but the less-populated Tolna and Vas counties have only two apiece.
        The national list is allocated on the basis of "residual votes." Votes cast for candidates who were not elected and votes cast for parties in county constituencies where they failed to win a seat are apportioned to the relevant parties providing they have obtained more than 5% of the national vote.
        Despite the complexity of the electoral system, ballot papers are straightforward. Voters make two marks on separate papers: the first for their preferred candidate in the single member constituency to which they belong; the second for their preferred party on the county list. All the rest is determined by computers.
        The electoral system tends to produce a bandwagon effect. Candidates representing smaller parties are knocked out of the election at the first round, and those parties which score below the 5% threshold forfeit their right to proportional representation through the county and national lists.
        The system benefits large, established parties and hinders the emergence of new parties with only a small organization. Thus the Hungarian Workers' Party, ideological heir of the former communist party, and the extreme right-wing Hungarian Justice and Life Party, founded in 1992 by IstvĚn Csurka, which obtained respectively 3.2% and 1.6% of the vote in the first round, emerged with no seats in the new parliament.
        The preponderance of seats allocated by single member constituency creates a further discrepancy between votes cast and seats in the legislature. The HSP received only 33% of votes cast in the first round, but obtained after the second round of voting a total of 54% of seats in the parliament.

Despite the scale of its election victory, which enabled it to govern alone, the HSP leadership sought to build a coalition.

         By the same token, the HDF polled 11.7% of votes in the first round, but took under 10% of seats overall. The Entrepreneurs' Party, headed by the emigre industrialist and former Hungarian ambassador to Washington, P╚ter Zwack, obtained a single seat in the legislature on account of its leader's victory in a single member constituency. Its representation in the legislature is thus identical to that of the Agrarian Alliance, even though the latter polled nationally more than three times the vote of the Entrepreneurs'.

Political Legitimacy and Governing Stability

        Despite the incomprehensibility of the electoral system to the average Hungarian voter, the 1994 elections retain strong political legitimacy. They were conducted with scrupulous impartiality by the National Electoral Office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Moreover, the voter turnout was high by Hungarian standards: 68.9% in the first round and 55.1% in the second.
        Nor was the HSP victory built on regional or class interests which might subsequently have left it exposed to the charge of sectionalism. In Budapest, traditionally a bastion of the AFD, 28 of the 32 single member constituencies and 10 of the 24 county seats were taken by the HSP. Although support for the HSP was higher in the eastern part of the country, the HSP still obtained an overwhelming majority of single member constituencies in the west.
        Despite the scale of its election victory, which enabled it to govern alone, the HSP leadership sought to build a coalition. Its interest derived from several considerations. First, as Horn argued, the tough economic measures which had to be introduced to keep down the budget deficit required "a broad government of national unity and reconciliation that seeks social peace."
         Secondly, the HSP needed allies in the parliament in order to reduce the influence of the trade unionists and former communist youth groups with which it had established close links during the campaign. In particular, the HSP leadership feared that B╚kesi's free market policies might have the effect of splitting the party and provoking a parliamentary crisis. Thirdly, the Hungarian constitution lays down that certain types of legislation require a two-thirds majority in the parliament.
        Within days of the election, the HSP entered into talks with the AFD on the issue of a coalition. Although the two parties' economic programs were fairly close, the AFD was suspicious that its role in any future government would simply be that of window dressing. In addition, the ex-dissident leaders of the AFD had natural misgivings about entering into an alliance with their former jailers.
        During June, both parties held extraordinary congresses which approved the text of a coalition agreement. The agreement granted the AFD substantial influence over policy including the right to approve major government decisions, appointments and draft legislation. The next month, the new coalition government took office. Gyula Horn became Prime Minister. The parliamentary leader of the AFD, GĚbor Kuncze, was given the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the office of Deputy Prime Minister. Two additional ministerial portfolios were awarded to AFD politicians.
        The HSP-AFD coalition gives the government control of 72% of seats in the parliament and threatens to marginalize the role of the opposition within the legislative system. Nevertheless, both the scale of the HSP victory and the subsequent coalition agreement should ensure that Hungary continues to enjoy stable parliamentary government over the next four years. The presence of the AFD in the ruling coalition may additionally dissuade the HSP leadership from going back on its commitment to the complete establishment of a market economy in Hungary.

        Martyn Rady is Lecturer in Central European History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London. This article originally appeared in Representation, the quarterly magazine published by the Arthur McDougall Fund.

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