When Democracy is Mistaken for Chaos

Posted: June 16, 1994

The Budapest Sun – Insight Section / 1994

By Daniel Odescalchi

To many foreigners, Hungary is a success story. Hungarians themselves, apparently, see things quite differently.
Voters last week tossed out the ruling Hungarian Democratic Forum and turned to the reformed minded communists who ruled the country before the political changes.

But what are voters really saying? New research is beginning to suggest that the new, post communist parties are not under attack, but rather democracy itself.

Take for example the multi party concept in Parliament. The average post-communist citizen is horrified by the spectacle of legislative debate – what we would refer to as a healthy exchange of ideas – televised on the Hungarian equivalent of C-Span.  For the past 45 years, Parliament was just a rubber stamp, a theater created to foster the illusion of self rule. It was unheard of to debate or “argue.”
Today, politicians in Hungary debate issues, and for the most part, vote along party lines. How does the Hungarian citizen view this? They see chaos, and feel “the government has lost control” and “the country is falling apart.” Hungarians remember when the government was “in order” and blame the present parties for this confusion.

Initial research has identified a segment of the population that hoped the Socialists would get enough votes to eliminate the need for a coalition. They say a coalition partner would only “interfere in the work” and “argue, impede getting things done.” The one-party system, because of its simplicity, makes more sense to these people.

Democracy has injected confusion where there was once discipline, planning and immutability. On politician compared people’s reaction with a tiger raised in captivity.  When the cage is placed in the wild and the gate is opened, the tiger will stick his head out, look around and then lie back down again. In 1990, Hungarians opened the gate when they voted against communism. Now they are lying back down.
A market economy has brought similar reactions. Hungary must bear the burden of privatization, which usually means investment and modernization of state-run companies, as well as doing away with excess. Here, where previous employment was 100 percent, doing away with excess unfortunately translated into joblessness.

Interestingly, a large majority of people felt that a private company will run more efficiently and is more likely to make a profit. Yet these were the same people who did not want their workplaces privatized.

These contradictions seemed to spread to almost all areas of Hungarian life. In a poll taken September 1993, for example, voters were asked whether they felt that the pervious communist regime was responsible for today’s economic problems. Seventy-two percent said the communists were responsible to a great degree.

In a poll taken after the first round of elections, when voters were asked why they voted for politicians from the old regime, many said that “they had proven they are experienced and able to govern.”

The full effect of decades of communism may not be known for a long time, but there is no question that Hungary is still feeling them. Although these trends show that voters are confused by the complexity of democracy, the election results cannot be attributed solely to that confusion.  Many parties misread voter attitudes and ran shoddy campaigns. Other parties seemed unclear how to survive in a democracy.

It may take another generation before post-communist Hungary is fully transformed into a true, modern democracy.

Odescalchi is an American political consultant conducting research on voting behavior in the region.