Parallel System Narratives – Polish and Hungarian regime formations compared / Part II of III

Like in the 1980s when the Polish activists of the Solidarity movement cooperated with the opposition in Hungary, we have now re-established contacts with our Hungarian friends. They have supported the Committee for the Defence of Democracy since its very beginning. During the demonstration in January 2016 in Warsaw, Balázs Gulyás warned us against the Hungarian scenario of Viktor Orbán, while Betram Marek, a student of political sciences, created a Facebook group called Dwa Bratanki, a name which alludes to a well-known proverb about Polish-Hungarian friendship “Pole and Hungarian brothers be, good for fight and good for party”. In March 2016, KOD and Gazeta Wyborcza daily organized a panel discussion with the former and present Hungarian opposition, entitled „Budapest in Warsaw, or Warsaw in Budapest”. One of the panellists was Róza Hodosán, a sociologist, who in the 1980s wrote and disseminated samizdat texts and publications and several times visited Warsaw trying to learn from the example of the Solidarity radio, which she wanted to organize in Hungary. Bertram Marek and Balázs Nemes spoke about the contemporary, young activists who are now in opposition to the Orbán government.

Last year, a few hundred Hungarian people expressed their solidarity with the Poles and support to the KOD activity, organizing demonstrations in front of the Polish embassy in Budapest.

To offer our readers a more analytical approach to the issue, we are pleased to be able to publish on our website a comparative study written by Bálint Magyar and Miklós Mitkovits. We wish to thank the Authors for this in-depth analysis of the Polish and Hungarian history, which may be very helpful in the context of the present political and economic situation in both countries. The study draws a parallel between the Polish and Hungarian history, showing similarities and pointing out significant differences, which may lead to interesting conclusions.
Since the text covers a wide spectrum of historical events, we will be publishing it parts. We welcome your comments and ideas. It is the authors’ intention to start a discussion about the activities which could be undertaken together to prevent Poland from the Hungarian scenario coming true.

If you wish to contact the authors personally, please write to us:

Part I     Part II     Part III


The social foundations of anti-regime politics, or its absence

The lesson Poland took away from 1956 was that unless demands concern commitments that stem from a country’s international position, it is possible to compel changes. At the same time, the system did not ensure the masses with ways to individual happiness: it restricted the peasantry in its role of private farmer, it shut the labor force up in large state enterprises. Due to the lack of reforms and continuous decline in living standards the groups that can be considered as opposition already appeared by the mid sixties, with the seventies bringing masses to radical manifestations of social discontentment.

1968—the series of protests by students, brutal action by the regime against intellectuals.

1970—violent repression of strikes in Gdansk that protested drastic hikes in food prices, with 44 fatal victims, and over a thousand wounded. Edward Gierek replaced Gomułka at the helm of the party in the aftermath.

1976—protests broke out in a number of cities due to rising food prices, these were brutally repressed by the regime, and many workers were imprisoned. It was in the aftermath of these events that an organization of intellectuals aiming to help those who suffered the repression was established, it was called the KOR (Komitet Obrony Robotników).

The relationship between the radical workers and the system-critical intellectuals was thereon institutionalized and permanent in Poland. The KOR was not only an aid organization, but through a work by Adam Michnik, A New Evolutionism, it was also formative of ideology and strategy. As such it ditched the dilemma, whether to improve the operation of the system while staying integrated in it, or to try to overthrow it from outside. Instead it proposed the building of parallel civil structures, thereby also demonstrating that it had understood the geopolitical power situation that kept the communist system in place for the moment, but did not recognize or legitimize it. The institutions of the parallel society generated by the intellectuals were the so called flying universities and independent publishers. Both were mass based and multi-centered.

1980—Solidarity Movement, growing out of the Shipyard of Gdańsk under the leadership of Lech Wałęsa was no longer just a parallel society, but also an embodiment of a parallel political power. The Solidarity Movement was unique in the region not only for its size (10 million members), but also its heterogeneity. It joined individuals and groups of various world views, of different social positions, and was strongly supported by the Catholic Church as well as Pope John Paul II, former archbishop of Cracow. A constellation of this sort was unimaginable in any other socialist country. In the course of the one-and-a-half-year existence of Solidarity it became clear that this deadlock could not be sustained and would have to go in one direction or the other. Though Jaruzelski’s coup defeated Solidarity at the cost of significant sacrifices, but was not able to reinstate the legitimacy of the regime even to the level it stood at before.

After the introduction of a state of emergency, the Jaruzelski leadership fell into complete international isolation, though it would have severely required western loans. On the other hand, the economist intellectuals of Solidarity had had enough of collectivist illusions, and a program of the liberalization of the economy increasingly grew popular among them. After joining the IMF in 1986, no other course was left open for the leadership of the party either.

In Hungary the reprisals that followed 1956 taught society that resistance to the power establishment was futile, and that they would have to make their lives more comfortable within the framework of the communist system. At the same time the leadership of the Kádár regime learned from 1956 that a peaceful society could not be sustained through total repression. Free rights, the improvement of living standards and conditions could not be dismissed. The Kádár consolidation and “compromise” embodied in part by the constant growth of general consumption established those safety valves for the release of social tensions, that serve any energies critical of the regime with private means of escape through individual accumulation of wealth and other deals within the framework of the system. All of this ruled out mass support for any initiative critical to the regime. Society was immunized to opposition thinking, so the opposition movements critical of the regime were limited to rather small circles.

1968 – a small group of philosophers protested against the occupation of Czechoslovakia.

1977 – a few scores of dissident intellectuals acclaimed the formation of the Czechoslovak Charta ’77.

1979 – approximately 250 individuals, largely intellectuals, signed a protest against the imprisonment of Václav Havel. This event can be considered the first step towards the institutionalization of the anti-communist dissident movement.

The Hungarian anti-communist dissident movement led by János Kis followed the Polish opposition’s strategy, without it gaining any form of broader social support. For in Hungary the sort of social deadlock arrived at by constant conflict with the regime in Poland had never come into existence. Society, with its peculiar compromise not only tolerated, but accepted the soft dictatorship ruling over it. In the spirit of the adopted Polish strategy the “flying (underground) universities” and samizdat literature began to spread quicker with the greater visibility of the Solidarity movement, though it remained always more restricted, single centered, and had less copies in circulation.

Though the Hungarian communist party observed the rise of Solidarity with some concern, its fall in 1981 only resulted in a temporary surge of repression against opposition movements. Nonetheless, while avoiding imprisoning dissident intellectuals, every effort was made to get in the way of the logistics of the samizdat publications and the material wellbeing of the couple of scores of opposition leaders. The contact of the isolated, small opposition movement with the broader “masses” was ensured by Free Radio Europe, which reported opposition actions and publications. Hungarian society at large did not participate in the system-critical movements and was, at most, an audience.

Apart from the system-critical anti-communist dissident movement, from the 80s onwards there were also the environmental-protection groups taking action against the dams of Bősnagymaros, who however kept their criticism within the “paradigm of public policy”. Others involved in politics included the activists of the peace movement Dialogue, who kept a distance from the radical opposition groups, and the Catholic grass-roots community, which came into confrontations with the Catholic Church. The circle of, so called, népi (folk) writers did not think in system-critical terms either, but wholly in terms of protecting the rights of the Hungarian minority across the border within the system, remaining undecided between joining the opposition and bargaining with the reform-communists even in the last third of the eighties.

In Hungary, in spite of the economic crisis, few concrete propositions for the transition materialized. A “social market economy” grew to become a popular formula.

1989–1990: the two peaceful, negotiated regime changes of the Eastern Bloc

The demolition of the communist party in the Soviet Union was carried out by the communist party itself, with the leadership of Gorbachev, as a continuation of Perestroika—a process beginning in the second half of the eighties and lasting over many years. In the rest of the East-European countries with a hard dictatorship—the GDR, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria—regime change took the form of a sudden break, without negotiations. Among the satellite states of the Soviet empire a negotiated regime change was only conducted from 1989–90 in the two soft dictatorships of Poland and Hungary, between the ruling communist parties and the actors of the political opposition. In both countries, the part of the communist party ready to be compromised by the talks was the one ready to face realities. In neither country was transition or a change of regimes the aim of these members of the communist party, but rather the legitimization of measures required to deal with the economic crisis made it seem worthwhile to involve an opposition they believed was weak. Of Solidarity they thought that seven years after the state of emergency it would not be capable of the show of force it had in 1980–81. The Hungarian democratic opposition lacked broad social support. One must add that these events did not unfold simultaneously in the two countries, but the Hungarians (both the reform communists and the opposition) followed the Polish developments. The adoption of the form of roundtable talks and then the results of the semi-free Polish elections, along with the Soviet response to it showed that the change of regimes had become a real possibility.

In Poland it was the broadly supported Solidarity, as trailblazer of the process and a movement gathering the actors critical of the system who negotiated with the regime—with the mediation of the Catholic Church. Peaceful transition and regime change was meanwhile guaranteed by a conditionally free electoral system, which ensured the Polish communist party and its allies power in the Sejm, while opening the reinstated Senate fully to free political competition. This is where the first semi-free elections of the eastern bloc took place in the summer of 1989. Solidarity set out to win 35% of the mandates in the Sejm, and the seats in the Senate under the name of Citizens’ Committee. Though neither the LEMP, nor Solidarity believed that the latter could win a landslide victory, this did occur. In the two-round election system Solidarity won everything it could. So Solidarity ran for the elections as a heterogeneous movement, but unified nevertheless, with the existing internal divisions only bringing about permanent differences after the elections.

Following the elections, Solidarity succeeded in splitting earlier followers of LEMP, the Democratic Party, and the United People’s Party away from the alliance, which meant a coalition was necessitated. Adam Michnik came up with the proposal: “we will delegate the prime minister, and you delegate the president”. Thus in exchange for Jaruzelski being elected president by a majority of one vote in the Sejm and the Senate, in September 1989, Tadeusz Mazowiecki could become the first non-communist prime minister in the region since 1947. After the elections a number of parties came to be formed out of the Solidarity Movement, while Solidarity began to function as a real labor union.

The program of the democratic opposition in 1987, the Social Contract, still represented the Polish strategy of power sharing. However, after the international thaw and transformation in Poland, the opposition parties established in 1988 brought about the Opposition Roundtable in the spring of 1989, unifying the opposition for talks with the communist party to ensure a peaceful transition. But the Hungarian opposition parties, lacking real links with the masses, represented the various trends in the opposition intellectual elite. The two most significant formations were: the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), grouped around the népi (folk) writers and representing a popular-national-Christian ideology under a conservative identity; and the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), which had grown out of the anti-communist dissident movement, had a western orientation and a leftist, liberal approach that represented radical system-criticism. So in this case the differentiation and institutionalization of the opposition forces with different ideological foundations had concluded even before the free elections.

In the course of the negotiations the reform-communists no longer had the chance to ensure themselves a guaranteed powerbase unaffected by political competition, as the Polish Sejm did, but aimed instead to have a semi-strong presidential position installed with similar authorities vested in it. A separate deal between the MDF and the reform communists was forestalled by a referendum at the end of 1989 initiated by the SZDSZ, that preceded the first free elections in the spring of 1990 and resulted in the victory of the MDF, leading to the formation of the national-Christian coalition.

The intersecting cycles of economic growth in Poland and Hungary (in percentage of annual growth of the GDP)
 Hungary 2010, Poland 2015: the second regime changes
 The first time Viktor Orbán came to power, in 1998, he already summed up his goals in the campaign slogan: “More than change of government, less than change of regimes”. The PiS led by the Kaczyński brothers voiced a similar demand from 2005. Orbán’s government remained for one term, while Jarosław Kaczyński’s stayed for less than two. Their return to power took place eight years later. Orbán defined Fidesz’s return to power in 2010 as a ballot box revolution, and his government as a second change of regimes, while Kaczyński also made claims of a regime-change on similar scale upon his return to power in 2015. They consider themselves the keepers of a tradition of Polish-Hungarian historical friendship. Poland symbolically supported the peace procession in Budapest, demonstrating loyalty to Orbán by transporting Polish PiS activists to Budapest for the occasion, and Orbán also ensures the new Polish government of his solidarity through exercising his veto against any EU sanctions it is threatened by. In spite of the similar ideological models and political language however, the immediate antecedents of these governments and their natures are quite different.
 Antecedents: the electoral defeat of the Polish government parties and the collapse of the third Hungarian republic
  • The concept of “welfare regime change” used with predilection in Hungary, is unknown in Poland. Essentially three right-wing, or center-right governments carried out the shock therapy reforms, which however had a social cost that cannot be dismissed. The first shock-therapy was conducted by the finance minister of the Mazowiecki government, Leszek Balcerowicz in 1990, which helped complete a relatively quick switch from a state socialist shortage economy to market competition based on private ownership. The second shock therapy is attributed to the Buzek government (1997–2001), in which Balcerowicz was deputy minister and finance minister. Significant reforms were introduced in four major fields: 1) education, 2) pensions, 3) public administration, 4) and healthcare. Finally, under the first government formed by the PiS (2005–2007), new radical changes were introduced in the battle against corruption, for lustration, and to “clean up” the secret services.
  • The leading politicians, and intellectuals-experts of the PiS, in government between 2005 and 2007, and the Civil Platform, in government from 2007–2015, were all the legacy of the Mazowiecki and Buzek government. The Polish right wing has believed in the free market and capitalism right from the start. They have not changed these fundamental principles even after both the Mazowiecki and the Buzek governments essentially suffered huge defeats.
  • Following the failure of the first PiS government, the coalition of the center-right Civil Platform and the agrarian—ideologically nationalistic, economically slightly left leaning—Polish People’s Party formed a government in 2007. The politics of the government led by Donald Tusk was calm and predictable. The Polish economy was in full swing, even in the worst year of the economic crisis (2009) it could account for a growth of 1.8%. Growth was 3.9% in 2010, and by 2011 had risen to 4.5%. Tusk’s defeat was due to the fact that significant social groups were left out of this prosperity: in small cities, villages, and the eastern regions.
  • The World Bank’s “Doing Business 2015” ranking Poland is listed in 32nd place. This means that in Poland conditions for investors are constantly getting better, and they are the best when considering the Eastern-Central-European members of the European Union. Thanks to the EU funds directed to Poland more than 160 thousand (!) projects have been successfully completed in the period between 2004 and 2013. The huge infrastructural development is very apparent. Poland can avail itself of 120 billion euros of the EU budget from 2013–2020, the most in total value among all the EU member states.
  • Poland has achieved significant prestige in international politics as well, primarily on account of its consistency in a Euro-Atlantic commitment, and stable, predictable governance. In 2014, Prime Minister Donald Tusk was elected to lead the European Council. Jarosław Kaczyński personally congratulated him on his appointment.
  • In 2015, the defeat of the PO-PSL government was a surprise to everyone, but it left a prosperous economy and internationally respected Poland to the future.
  • The MSZP-SZDSZ coalition that came to power in 2002, following the program of “welfare regime change” declared by the socialist party went on a spending spree that the economy could not afford: it raised the wages of public employees by 50 percent, introduced the extra month’s pension for December, and various social benefits were also raised significantly. The program could not be made sustainable even with a growth in debts, and so the policies of halfheartedly and necessarily accepted austerity began. In contrast to the logic of the Kádár consolidation—in which the harsh reprisals and sanctions applied a single time were followed by the politics of continuous, incrementally introduced little “rewards”, concessions and improvements in living standards—in this case the one-time allowance, which could be forgotten in a few months was followed by a constant policy of austerity. This undermined faith in the future of the government and its credibility.
  • The reform of the large social welfare systems also stalled, partly because its implementation would have required the support of two-thirds of the parliament, and partly because Fidesz’s, so called welfare referendum of 2008 excluded the institutional introduction of market elements in health-care and education. In its aftermath the government coalition fell apart, and the following two years until the 2010 elections passed with a minority government.
  • A few months after the electoral victory of the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition in 2006, a speech given by Ferenc Gyurcsány to the MSZP faction became public: in this he admitted the manipulation of budget deficit figures in a statement paraphrasing the slogan of ’56 (“we lied morning, day, and night”), causing an unrepairable breach of confidence. The violent anti-government protests that erupted in the aftermath, and the police reaction to them were merely the prelude to a period of cold civil war—which composed the essence of Fidesz’s politics in opposition.
  • Fidesz’s strategy of civil cold war in opposition replaced necessary consensus that had been built into the constitutional order with a politics of bribery and liquidation: on the one hand they did not support systemic reforms requiring two-thirds majority in the national assembly whatever compromise they may have included, and on the other, when it came to the election of heads or members of the institutional control mechanisms of liberal democracy they either approved the appointment of their own nominee, or paralyzed the operation of the institution by denying their cooperation.
  • Going beyond the—at times justly critical—tenor and norms of political battles until then, they used communications tools of character-assassination and the prosecutor’s office to paint government politicians in diabolical colors.
  • First the erosion of ability to govern, and later, the governing parties’ loss of credibility and paralysis, the revelation of cases of corruption, the economic crisis of 2008, as well as the political climate of cold civil war finally brought about the collapse of the third republic in Hungary.
 The effect of the different electoral systems on the concentration of power and the extent of the conversion of regimes
  • The regional list electoral system results in a relatively proportional distribution of mandates. The PiS won the 2015 elections with 37.6% gaining a 51% majority in the Sejm. (The results were distorted in favor of PiS by the fact that the United Left did not win mandates in spite of achieving 7.6%, so if the SLD had alone been on the ballot, the PiS would not even have a majority in the Sejm. In 2011, the Civil Platform as winner of the elections got 54% of the mandates after gaining 39.2% of the votes.) Nevertheless, even with this distorted distribution of the mandates, the PiS was only made capable of a change of government, but did not enable a completely appropriation of political power. A change of constitution (requiring, unlike in the Hungarian system, the support not of two-thirds of all the members of parliament, but only of those present) would have required some extreme manipulation. Appointments in the institutions of political control however do not require a two-thirds consensus, and the limits for changes are set rather by the fixed terms of their appointment. At the same time—not having the cardinal Acts that can only be changed by two-thirds of the parliament—it has more leeway in broader changes to the system, though all such changes can be just as easily undone by a new government.
  • Changes to Polish electoral law, along the lines of the Hungarian changes are not allowed by the constitution—which demands proportionality. However, the PiS does have the necessary majority in the Sejm, and the consequences of a switch to the mixed election system (individual and list) were unpredictable for Poland. Since it is impossible to change the proportionality of the electoral system, power machinations are limited mainly to a state-owned public media.
  • Since the legal system forestalls the overthrow of the institutions of democracy and ensures a lack of the majority required to introduce a new constitution, the new regime turns to open violation of the constitution, or modifies the old institutions in such a way as to be able to give positions to its own cadres (examples of this are the current alteration of the court system and the media). Yet these laws cannot be enshrined across terms of government.
  • The mixed election system effective in Hungary until 2011 (a single chamber parliament of 386 seats, could be filled by 176 representatives elected from single-member constituencies, a minimum of 58 mandates from the national list and a maximum of 152 seats from the regional lists) made it possible for Fidesz to secure a two-thirds majority in Parliament with only 53 percent of the votes in 2010, providing it with practically unlimited political power. On the one hand it could alone rewrite the Constitution (which it did in 2011, amending it five times since as its political needs dictated), and could naturally pass any legislation. On the other hand, it was able to appoint the heads and other officials of the institutions meant to serve as balances of power in a liberal democracy (Constitutional Court, Media Authority, National Council for control over courts, election overseeing bodies etc.) without any need for consensus with the opposition, simply installing it own cadres. Moreover, the terms in office for numerous positions were unrealistically extended: the Chief Prosecutor and the President and members of the Media Council have terms of 9 years, the President and Vice-President of the State Audit Office of Hungary are appointed for terms of 12 years each. Therefore, the systemic changes wrought by the Fidesz government are virtually irrevocable even after the government is defeated, since the currently scattered opposition would be unable to gain a 2/3 majority, but the people appointed by Fidesz will remain in their positions even after a change of government.
  • By changing the electoral law (increasing the disproportionality of the system, redrawing the single-member constituencies, shorter time-period for the collection of signatures required to stand for elections, introduction of the one-round election system, forcing opposition forces to form a coalition prior to the elections, right to vote given to ethnic Hungarians across the borders etc.) by 2015 Fidesz could secure a two-thirds majority in Parliament with only 44 percent of the votes. The parliamentary majority was only lost later, as a result of defeats in by-elections.
  • The two-thirds majority Fidesz secured in Parliament allowed it to conduct a constitutional coup through the new Constitution and its continuous amendments: if new laws it had passed were declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court—notwithstanding the new Constitution—rather than adjusting the laws to the Constitution, it adjusted the Constitution to the laws.

Part I     Part II     Part III

Bálint Magyar (b. 1952) is a sociologist and a liberal politician. He graduated from Eötvös Loránd University, where he obtained a degree in sociology and history, and then a doctorate in political economy with the dissertation about the post-war history of Polish agriculture. His first job was as a scientific researcher at the Institute for World Economics of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, specializing in East Europe. From 1979 he became a human right activist within the developing “democratic opposition” and was involved in the production of the “Beszélő” samizdat periodical. In 1981 he was expelled from Poland because of his contacts with the activists of Solidarność. In 1988 was among the founding members of one of the major oppositional political parties in Hungary, the SZDSZ (Alliance of Free Democrats), consequently took part in the architecture of the new democracy and negotiating with the Communist Party the peaceful transition at the “National Roundtable” discussions. He served as an MP of SZDSZ from 1990 until 2010, and was part of the party’s leadership (president between 1998–2000). From 1996 until 1998 and from 2002 until 2006 he held the position of Minister of Education.

Miklós Mitrovits (b. 1978) historian, Polonist. He graduated from the History Studies of Eötvös University in Budapest and parallel with his M.A. studies he completed specialization courses in Historical Russicistics and Modern Sovietology. In 2009 he was granted his PhD in the 19th and 20th Century Eastern European History Doctoral School. Between 2004 and 2008 he was studying at the Polish Studies and Central European Studies of the Pázmány Péter Catholic University. Since 2014 he has worked as a research fellow at the Department for Contemporary History of the Institute of History at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
His main research field is the contemporary history of Eastern Europe after WWII, principally the history of Poland, the Polish-Hungarian relationships and the characteristics of the political, economic and cultural development of the East-Central European countries. The comparative research of the countries of this region, mainly the entanglement history of these countries after WWII: relationships, interactions and attempts for integrations between Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. He has several publications concerning the foreign policy of the Kádár era in Hungary, particularly the Hungarian-Polish and Hungarian-Czechoslovakian relationships. He has edited numerous collections of studies and documents. His main books: A remény hónapjai… A lengyel Szolidaritás és a szovjet politika 1980–1981 [Months of hope. The polish Solidarity movement and the soviet politics between 1980 and 1981], and Lengyel–magyar “két jó barát”. A magyar–lengyel kapcsolatok dokumentumai, 1957–1987. [Pole and Hungarian, “two good friends”. Documents on the Hungarian–Polish relationship, 1957–1987.]. In 2014 he received the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland.

Leave a Reply

Be the First to Comment!

Notify of