Hungarian government deepens anti-democratic campaign

October 23, 1991

Fallout from the Yugoslav civil war and the failed Soviet coup is currently dominating Hungarian politics, benefiting the ruling rightist Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), reports LASZLO ANDOR from Budapest.

Eighteen months after national elections, the transformation led by the MDF seems slow and uncertain, while the Jozsef Antall government continues its gradual approach to introducing market capitalism.

In fact, this government has had few of the major tasks of liberalisation and deregulation to carry out simply because the deposed HSWP (Communist) government had already done the lion's share of the legislative work needed for capitalist restoration. Nonetheless, in terms of actual privatisation and international economic reorientation, much is still to be done.

The MDF is treading a thin line. While it must create for itself a social base of capital owners, the very process of doing so threatens to stimulate social tensions that could destroy the whole process before such a new class forms.

Recognising the dangers, the MDF has moved quickly to centralise power in its own hands. Through the Constitutional Court it moved to limit the powers of President Arpad Gäncz over the army, and it has extended further controls over national radio and television. Antall may hope soon to replace Gäncz with an MDF stalwart.

Antall has also extended controls over the press. For some time the MDF has controlled television news, but recently it decided to penetrate the print media as well, using state-owned banks as a source of finance to launch a new government-affiliated newspaper, Uj Magyarorszag (New Hungary).

Despite television commercials labelling it a "clear voice", in six months this Antall mouthpiece achieved the dizzy circulation of 3000 — 1% of the sales of the country's biggest daily, Nepszabadsag, which calls itself socialist.

The government's perceived clumsy political intervention into the economy has caused protests from the Entrepreneurs League and the Manufacturers Union, both of which had been MDF affiliates.

A scandal erupted at the third biggest paper, Magyar Nemzet (Hungarian Nation) when the MDF-aligned editor sacked leading journalists, charging they were too critical of the government.

However, despite predictions of a "hot autumn", and despite rising unemployment and falling living standards, since the abandoned June strike call of leading unions there has been little significant resistance to the effects of the economic transformation. With a falling foreign deficit and slowing inflation, the government has been advertising its economic successes. And, having replaced unreliable leaders of the police and the army, the government feels reasonably secure.

Recent by-elections reveal a studied passivity by voters. Heavily backed finance minister Mihaly Kupa only scraped in on second round votes from the countryside following a high abstention in first round voting. In the electorate of Kisber, there was a world record low turnout for a by-election (7%), and no candidate was elected by the fifth round of voting.

"Kis ber" means small wage. So one joke doing the rounds was that "Small wage doesn't need an MP, and MPs don't need a small wage" (politicians recently — again — raised their own salaries).

Antall fumbled on the first day of the Soviet coup when he said on television he was glad it had been Yanayev and not Gorbachev who had signed the abolition of the Warsaw Pact treaty. On the other side, HSWP leader Gyula Thürmer said stupidly that there were times in history when the people's interests could be protected only by anti-constitutional means.

The Yugoslav crisis has given the government another anti-Communist card to play, claiming the "Communist" Serbs will not allow independence for the "Western oriented" Croats. The MDF delivered weapons to Croatia last year and politically supports the republic now, not out of consideration for the oppressed but because — according to Antall — the collapse of Yugoslavia "reopens the question of Vojvodina", a rich agricultural region where half a million Hungarians live, one that was attached to Hungary prior to World War I.

Moreover, as a product of the Yugoslav crisis, the idea of a limited introduction of martial law has been floated by Smallholders Party leader Jozsef Torgyan, the country's foremost right-wing populist politician. A wealthy lawyer, Torgyan is building the Smallholders, which he took over two years ago, as the representative of small and large entrepreneurs. The party is more and more a threat to the government.

In these conditions, the MDF has taken greater charge of the privatisation process, steering it away from the dependence on so-called spontaneous privatisations, which benefit "unreliable" enterprise managers. The MDF wants a far more politically motivated distribution of state property to chosen candidates who form part of its electoral base.

This could be called "neo-Horthyism", since a similar illusion in property ownership encouraged millions to support the fascistic inter-war regime of Miklos Horthy. The MDF has even introduced a bill to revise the privatisation deals of the last two years to determine whether or not buyers paid a "decent price".

This rightward drift, though, is not completely unchallenged. Given the composition of parliament, it is not impossible for a liberal coalition to take control. But the liberal parties are in relative political decline.

Remarkably, the government's attempt to redistribute trade union property towards its own federations failed when, in a compulsory membership reregistration process, workers overwhelmingly signed up again with their own unions, revealing the possibility that a viable force could take shape on the left in the form of a socialist-oriented trade union movement.

In the extreme anti-Communist climate last year, the trade unions and the Socialist Party (MSP — the former HSWP) determinedly avoided each other. But in September, under pressure from the Left Alliance, both participated in a common rally.

Sandor Nagy, leader of the anti-government MSOS trade union federation, told the rally that union demands include an active employment policy, a decent social welfare net, participation in privatisation and defence of civil and human rights. Mozes Kovacs, a miner and founder of a new workers' party, said next spring, when unemployment may exceed 500,000 or 10%, the government may face massive unrest. There must be a large demonstration to hold back the government's anti-worker measures, he said.

The only parliamentary party of the left, the Socialist Party is in a state of transition. Left forces inside the party say the leadership realises it has no role to play in Hungary's transition to capitalism. Meanwhile, at an MSP-organised conference in September, party leader Gyula Horn, the former foreign minister who opened Hungarian borders in 1989, said he was certain the party would be admitted to the Socialist International.

In the absence of strong domestic opposition, the government will be free to carry out further repression, including witch-hunts against the left. A Socialist Party print shop worker recently elected to parliament in a by-election lost his job, without redress. If the MDF removes Gäncz as president, the next target could be Horn himself. And with Western support, almost anything is possible.

Issue