Leading Article: Why the old guard is back in Hungary

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE SUCCESS of the Hungarian Socialist Party in the first round of the general election seems to confirm a trend towards the return of former Communist parties to power in the area. They are already back in Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine, strong in Bulgaria, and even doing fairly well in the eastern part of Germany. In Romania they never left government.

Although conditions vary enormously among these countries, the former Communists have in common that they can exploit the pain of transition, or the fear of it. But they also gain from being more organised, politically experienced and sometimes wealthier than the amateur parties that grew out of opposition movements.

Their Communism was, in most cases, only skin-deep. There were practically no believing Communists in Poland or Hungary after 1956, in Czechoslovakia after 1968 or, indeed, anywhere except East Germany. Instead, there were careerists, opportunists and pragmatists, some promoted for competence, others for political conformity.

Hungary, after the shock of the 1956 revolution, became better than most at promoting competent people and setting them to run a programme of economic reform that unfolded gradually as the limits of the system expanded.

It is the genuinely reformist wing of this regime that has now been able to find supporters not only among the losers, the old and the unemployed but also among rising graduates and managers. Recent opinion polls show that Hungarian voters were looking above all else for competence.

This may seem unfair on the outgoing government, which has pulled the country through a period of suffering caused not only by the transition to democracy but also by the collapse of the Soviet market and severe droughts. Now that the worst seems over, it might have expected a better reward. But it has been widely regarded as divided, arrogant, culturally conservative, far too nationalist and less efficient than it should have been. Unfortunately, opposition under the old regime provided poor training for power politics. Whether reconstructed members of the old guard can do better remains to be seen, but the one thing they will not do is embark on economic policies radically different from those of their immediate predecessors.