Hungary Adopts a Multiparty System

In 1989, as part of the new political movements sweeping Eastern and Central Europe, Hungary began to develop a multiparty system.

Summary of Event

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost Glasnost (openness) and perestroika Perestroika (restructuring) had far-reaching effects throughout Eastern and Central Europe. Among the countries that responded to the new liberalization in the Soviet Union with their own drives for liberalization was Hungary. Hungary had long been one of the leaders of change among the socialist states, but most of the change had centered on the economy. In 1989, political change came to the foreground, as new political groups and movements began to challenge the ruling communist elite in Hungary. Although the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (HSWP), Hungary’s communist party, was more liberal than most other East European communist parties and had taken the initiative in introducing economic change and limited political reform, the party was seen as the cornerstone of a hated regime and so came under attack in 1989. Political parties;Hungary
Hungary, government
[kw]Hungary Adopts a Multiparty System (1989)
[kw]Multiparty System, Hungary Adopts a (1989)
Hungary, government
[g]Europe;1989: Hungary Adopts a Multiparty System[07100]
[g]Hungary;1989: Hungary Adopts a Multiparty System[07100]
[c]Government and politics;1989: Hungary Adopts a Multiparty System[07100]
Gorbachev, Mikhail
[p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;glasnost
Grósz, Károly
Pozsgay, Imre
Antall, Jozsef
Nagy, Imre
Kádár, János
Goncz, Arpad

In May, 1988, János Kádár, the general secretary of the HSWP who had been in power since late 1956, was replaced by Károly Grósz. Kádár was given the honorary title of party chair. A year later, in May, 1989, Kádár was removed as chair and released from the party’s Central Committee. Kádár was the first casualty in the party’s campaign to change its image and respond to mounting public criticism. Although Kádár had permitted liberalization of the economy and, in later years, even of the political system, he remained a symbol of the betrayal of the 1956 revolution. Indeed, a few days before Kádár’s retirement, Radio Budapest broadcast a speech by Imre Nagy, the leader of the revolution of 1956. A month later, on June 16, Nagy was reburied with full honors in Budapest, and in July he was fully rehabilitated, shortly after the death of Kádár.

Hungary had planted the seeds of a multiparty system in the mid-1980’s. As early as 1985, 10 percent of the seats in the Hungarian parliament were held by independents, which was quite unusual for an Eastern European state. A multiparty system began to develop in 1988, but the majority of parties were formed in 1989. In late 1988, Grósz and others working with him, especially Imre Pozsgay, were moving toward a more liberal regime that would permit the right of association, thus allowing other political parties to exist.

The first formal opposition group was the Hungarian Democratic Forum, Hungarian Democratic Forum established in September, 1988. It and other groups were formed even before the formal legislation allowing them was passed. Not all parties were new. Some were resurrected from the period before World War II, such as the Smallholders and the Social Democrats. Social Democratic Party (Hungary) In the period from late 1988 through 1990, fifty-two parties were born in Hungary. This may appear extraordinary, but it was not atypical of Eastern Europe, where the people’s desires to express their political perspectives were strong after decades in which they were denied the right of political association.

Social ferment characterized Hungarian politics in 1989. Initially, it appeared that the HSWP, which had initiated many reforms in response to popular pressure, would be among the few communist parties to survive in Eastern Europe. The party moved boldly yet cautiously in its reforms, mindful of the Soviet invasion of 1956. When at last the leaders were certain that the Soviet Union would not intervene, it may have been too late. The new political groups grasped the initiative of change from liberal communists such as Pozsgay, who was regarded as the Hungarian Gorbachev.

The opposition groups quickly gained strength, and, as early as June, 1989, there was talk of multiparty elections in Hungary. New electoral laws were passed, and plans were made for elections in 1990. Initially, there were fears that the communists, who had been important in the reform movement, would not tolerate electoral defeat. The process of accepting political competition accelerated as the months passed. In June, 1989, the communist regime began a series of roundtable discussions with the opposition parties. Present at the meetings were liberals and conservatives, and those both for and against the present regime. These roundtable talks, which were somewhat comparable to discussions held in Poland, were a first step in recognizing the existence of opposition groups.

Also in June, the HSWP formed a collective leadership that included Károly Grósz, Imre Pozsgay, Miklos Nemeth, Nemeth, Miklos and Rezso Nyers, Nyers, Rezso thus effectively reducing Grósz’s power in favor of the other three more liberal communists. In October, 1989, the HSWP renamed itself the Hungarian Socialist Party in a somewhat futile attempt to distance itself from its communist heritage. It was probably a sign, too, that the communists accepted the inevitability of multiparty elections in the near future and were preparing a new image for the polls. As part of the mounting changes, the country itself was formally renamed the Republic of Hungary (from the People’s Republic of Hungary) in late 1989.

The two strongest parties that emerged from the fifty-two formed in 1988-1989 were the moderate Hungarian Democratic Forum Hungarian Democratic Forum (Magyar Demokrata Fórum, or MDF) and the more liberal Alliance of Free Democrats Alliance of Free Democrats (Hungary) (Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége, or SZDSZ), both of which were major contenders for power. Jozsef Antall, the leader of the MDF, and Arpad Goncz, the founder of the SZDSZ, emerged as two of the most important political leaders in the multiparty spectrum. Parliamentary elections were held in March and April, 1990, and the clear victor in the two rounds of elections was the MDF, in coalition with the Smallholders and the Christian Democrats. Together they obtained 60 percent of the seats in the new democratically elected parliament. The SZDSZ and its allied parties became the democratic opposition. As the head of the MDF, Antall was selected as prime minister. In July, 1990, Goncz, the elderly leader of the SZDSZ, was elected president of the republic, a largely ceremonial post.

Although both the MDF and SZDSZ were reform parties, they were different from each other in approach and orientation. The SZDSZ wanted rapid transformation toward a free market economy, whereas the MDF moved more slowly and cautiously, fearful that rapid privatization might result in severe economic dislocation. About 40 percent of Hungary’s population was living at or below the poverty level, and members of the MDF believed that rapid change would endanger an even larger segment of the population.


The rise of a multiparty system in Hungary was part of the larger picture of Hungary’s greater political freedom and increased independence from the Soviet Union. Hungary under János Kádár had been one of the more independent Eastern European states while remaining part of the Soviet network in Eastern Europe. The events of 1989 allowed Hungary at last to become fully independent from the Soviet Union, a process attempted unsuccessfully in the 1956 revolution.

The disintegration of the HSWP was especially noteworthy, because the HSWP had sanctioned moderate reforms for some time. From the people’s perpective, these communist-led reforms were too little, too late. The people wanted freedom in all areas, which was not possible under the communist rule of the HSWP.

The emergence of Hungary’s multiparty system is one of the success stories in the renaissance of Eastern and Central Europe. Seldom has a multiparty system emerged so quickly and been able to stage meaningful elections. In the Soviet Union, for example, the development of a multiparty system proceeded much more slowly. Hungary, however, is a small country, and a significant portion of its population is concentrated in the capital, Budapest.

Those who applauded the rise of the multiparty system in Hungary also cautioned that the pace of reform had slowed after 1990. Hungary was inclined toward Western Europe but was handicapped by the legacy of an “Eastern” (that is, communist-style) political and economic system. Hungary had already sought greater cooperation with Western Europe, especially Austria and Germany. Aspirations for a Western-style democracy with a smooth and efficient economy had so far outpaced reality. Overwhelming economic problems and a weak political and economic infrastructure represented alarming obstacles to reform.

Hungary’s people were disappointed that the transition was neither swift nor easy. The transformation of the economic system appeared to be a protracted struggle that could have the unintended consequence of further impoverishing a significant part of the population. Despite foreign economic aid, progress was slow. Hungary had a huge annual deficit and a large foreign debt. Inflation took its toll on personal savings, as in other Eastern European countries, and many Hungarians were exhausted from the strain of working two jobs to make ends meet.

Some of the political winds of freedom had negative overtones, including strong nationalism and anti-Semitism. Because ethnic and religious tensions among the states of eastern Central Europe were already strong, Hungarian patriotism contained the seeds of international and internal discord. An issue that defied resolution was the status of the Hungarian minority living in Romania, people who endured great hardship and discrimination under Nicolae Ceauşescu’s Ceauşescu, Nicolae regime. Although the Hungarian government was outspoken in its support of the rights of Hungarians living in Romania, it stopped short of offering them the free right to emigrate to Hungary, a country already struggling to provide a better standard of living for its people.

Most of the states of eastern Central Europe, Hungary included, hoped that their political changes would provide a miracle cure. The cure, although remarkable, was far short of miraculous, however, and popular discontent was evident, especially in the low voter turnout that characterized the several opportunities Hungarians were offered to go to the polls during 1990. Thus, although they were noteworthy achievements, the rise of the multiparty system and the increase in political freedom did not succeed, in their first several years, in solving Hungary’s myriad problems or engaging the loyalty and enthusiasm of the population, who remained politically disenchanted after years of unmet communist promises.

The first multiparty elections were but a beginning in a long process of reform and transition, as Hungary gradually adopted liberal economic reforms and oriented itself ever more closely to the West. The economic transition involved painful years of double-digit inflation, but by 2005, inflation had been reduced to less than 4 percent, and the country was experiencing a very strong 7.5 percent industrial growth rate. Hungary joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. The move to democratic political and liberal economic reforms was at last showing significant dividends. Hungary, government

Further Reading

  • Brown, J. F. Surge to Freedom: The End of Communist Rule in Eastern Europe. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991. Discussion of the changes in Eastern Europe by one of the preeminent specialists on the region. Includes a chapter on Hungary since 1956, with special attention to the developments in 1989.
  • Echikson, William. “Bloc Buster.” World Monitor 2 (June, 1989): 29-35. Addresses the emerging democratic movement in Hungary and the fears expressed by Communists. Focuses especially on Imre Pozsgay, the most liberal of the Communist leaders, who predicted that a multiparty system would develop.
  • Gati, Charles. The Bloc That Failed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. Traces the gradual disintegration of the Eastern European bloc. Includes substantial information on Hungary.
  • Körösényi, András. Government and Politics in Hungary. Translated by Alan Renwick. New York: Central European University Press, 1999. Presents a historical overview of Hungarian government and offers analysis of the characteristics of Hungarian politics.
  • Pataki, Judith. “Major Political Change and Economic Stagnation.” Report on Eastern Europe, 1990: Democracy in the Year One 2 (January 4, 1991): 20-24. Provides a detailed, well-written, and gloomy description of Hungary’s prospects. Pays particular attention to the low voter turnout in the several elections and referenda held during 1990, an indication of popular apathy.
  • _______. “New Government Prefers Cautious Change.” Report on Eastern Europe: Toward Democracy in Eastern Europe 1 (July 13, 1990): 20-24. Traces the policies of the new coalition government in Hungary, headed by the MDF and its allies.
  • Prins, Gwyn, ed. Spring in Winter: The 1989 Revolutions. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1991. Collection of interesting essays about developments in Eastern Europe in 1989 includes an essay on Hungary by Elemer Hankiss. An excellent appendix by Sarah Humphrey chronicles major events of 1989 in each Eastern European country.
  • Reisch, Alfred. “Hungary in 1989: A Country in Transition.” Report on Eastern Europe, 1989: A Year of Upheaval 1 (January 5, 1990): 19-23. Chronicles the developments in Hungary in 1989. The volume in which this essay appears provides a good overview of Eastern Europe in 1989.
  • Rothschild, Joseph, and Nancy M. Wingfield. Return to Diversity: A Political History of East Central Europe Since World War II. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. General history of Eastern Europe since 1945 contains considerable material on Hungary that provides useful background for readers trying to understand the context of the events of 1989.
  • Simons, Thomas W., Jr. Eastern Europe in the Postwar World. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Presents a highly readable history of events leading up to 1989 in Eastern Europe and offers discussion of future possibilities in the region. Provides a good background for understanding the events of 1989.
  • Volgyes, Ivan. “For Want of Another Horse: Hungary in 1990.” Current History 89 (December, 1990): 421-422, 433-435. Examines events in Hungary in 1990, including the parliamentary elections in which all fifty-two parties participated, and evaluates Hungary’s strengths and weaknesses. Strongly recommended for further reading on the problems of reform in contemporary Hungary.

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