Why Do Communists Keep Winning Free Elections?


BUDAPEST — Budapest.--The successors to the Communists won last weekend in the final round of Hungary's 1994 national elections.

With some trepidation, the world took note that Hungary, like Lithuania and Poland before it, had returned the former (if somewhat reformed) Communist Party to power. The wins by the Communist remnants are leading some to wonder about the fate of regional democratic reforms. But only a paranoid few anticipate the restoration of the old one-party dictatorship and state-controlled centralized economy.

With a 54 percent majority, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) registered the third and largest victory by Communist successors in the former Soviet bloc. The Polish Democratic Left Alliance won 37 percent of seats in the Polish Sejm in September 1993. The Lithuanian Democratic Worker's Party gained 52 percent of parliamentary seats the next month.

The regional trend may reflect nostalgia for communism to the extent that free-market reforms hurt, and the standard of living for many East Europeans was higher in the late 1980s than it is now. But it is perhaps better understood as a product of the post-Communist Zeitgeist, a combination of determination to see democratic reforms through with popular disillusionment with the euphoria of 1989.

In Hungary, the election went to the Socialists, not to socialism. An absolute majority, 209 of 386 parliamentary seats, went to the MSZP, the legal successor to the Communist Hungarian

Socialist Workers' Party that governed Hungary from 1956 to 1989.

The Socialist victory stems from several factors.

First, many Hungarians voted with their wallets, perceiving the MSZP's promise of "capitalism with a human face" as the best of both worlds.

Hungary's post-Communist economic health has been plagued by chronic and acute pain, including rising prices, 13 percent unemployment and a widening gap between rich and poor.

Because the MSZP's moderate platform included a firm commitment to continuing Hungary's reforms, the electorate was spared an agonizing choice between self-interest and democracy.

To date, Hungary has attracted some $7 billion in foreign investment since 1990, more than the rest of Eastern Europe put together. The privatization of state-owned concerns has resulted some 60 percent of the gross domestic product stemming from the private sector, including the black market.

Most Western political analysts agree the Socialist leadership will pose no threat to Hungary's long-term stability.

The Socialist leadership's credibility was crucial to the MSZP's victory. Polls show MSZP leader Gyula Horn is the politician Hungarians most strongly associate with the change of regime. In his role as foreign minister in the last Communist government, Mr. Horn opened the border to allow East German refugees to move from Hungary into Austria, creating a dramatic movement of people that hastened the collapse of communism.

Another element contributing to the credibility of the MSZP is that the party did not change its ideological stripes after the Berlin Wall fell. Unlike Poland, where transformed ex-Communists ran as free-market democrats, the MSZP campaigned as unrepentant, if revamped, Socialists. This was possible because of the liberal nature of Hungary's "goulash communism," so called for its mix of some private enterprise with a planned economy. This relatively moderate climate under communism earned Hungarians a reputation as the happiest campers in the Eastern barracks.

The MSZP benefited from the absence of substantive distinctions among the mainstream party platforms, political analysts said, giving image precedence over ideology:

* Polls show that voters regard the Alliance of Free Democrats, a party largely composed of former dissidents that came in a remote second with 70 seats, as principled, but inexperienced and idealistic.

* Voters held the current ruling party, the conservative Hungarian Democratic Forum, guilty by association for the economic troubles of the last four years. It won 37 seats, a humiliating drop from 164 seats in the 1990 elections.

* The Young Democrats' Party made a surprisingly poor showing, gaining only 20 seats despite its earlier popularity. Voters perceived that the former alternative student party had moved too far to the right, positioning itself as a party of pragmatic yuppies.

At this juncture, it seems premature to see a new, regional Red Menace. The MSZP, democratically elected by a landslide, proposes no significant changes in national policy.

While the prospect of former Communists attaining power frightens some, especially in this part of the world, it should be remembered that the voters' choices, in Hungary and the other emerging democracies, are limited. As a Budapest intellectual observed, "If everyone associated with the old regime was forbidden from power, then by default the country would have to be run by waitresses and bus drivers."

Laura Chappell-Brown is a free-lance journalist based in Budapest.

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