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30 Years of Freedom: The Opposition Roundtable Laying the Groundwork for Democratic Hungary

Led by different opposition and reform groups, the Opposition Round Table (Ellenzéki Kerekasztal or EKA) was set up with the aim of ensuring a peaceful transition from the socialist regime in Hungary to democracy. Though its main goal, the change of the regime was fulfilled, many critical questions, including those around the economy and the market, arguably remain unsettled.

Budapest, June 21, 1989 The Opposition Round Table in Parliament. To the right are representatives of the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP), representatives of the Democratic opposition and observers in a semicircle. MTI Photo: Lajos Soós.

Talks started in the spring of 1989, as a follow-up to a demonstration that took place on March 15 that same year, where the opposition presented the conditions they wanted for the change to happen. The list of 12 points was mutually devised by various opposition representatives and read out by actor György Cserhalmi at the demonstration.

The wish list included multi-party parliamentary democracy; the rule of law, human rights and political freedoms; fair burden-sharing and the abolition of privileges; a functioning market economy with equity; cutting down on bureaucracy and violence; the restoration of the country’s sovereignty, neutrality and the withdrawal of Soviet troops.

A strategy on transition was also presented at Kossuth tér, which basically called for a strong and united opposition to serve as “an inevitable rival and negotiating partner of the governing party, the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party [MSZMP]”, said János Kis, representative of the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ). A few days later, SZDSZ passed a call for a roundtable of independent organizations, but withdrew it when a similar initiative was proposed by the Independent Lawyers’ Forum.

The Opposition Roundtable was formed on March 22, 1989, by the organizations invited by the Independent Lawyers’ Forum at the Law Department of Eötvös Loránd University, in the library of the Department of Criminal Law.

There were eight founding organizations: the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), FIDESZ (the Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége–Magyar Polgári Szövetség or Federation of Young Democrats–Hungarian Civic Alliance), the Independent Smallholders’ Party (FKGP), the Hungarian People’s Party (MNP), the Hungarian Social Democratic Party (MSZDP), the Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Friendship Society (BSZBT) and the Independent Society. A ninth, the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) joined later.

White House

Despite several attempts by the MSZMP to fragment the opposition, and differences among the EKA itself, on June 10, an agreement between MSZMP and EKA was signed in the “White House”, the communist party’s headquarters. The two parties agreed to start a trialogue on the reform of the constitutional system, involving the State Party, the Round Table and social organizations and movements (also known as the Third Side). The parties stated that power was based on the people’s sovereignty and that no political power could acquire that sovereignty.

“Our aim is to not share power with its current owners, but that the citizens decide who they place their trust in for four years between elections,” Imre Kónya, head of the EKA delegation said when sharing the organization’s declaration of intent with the representatives of the regime.

“We must agree on the conditions of the amicable transition into democracy. [...] The will of the people must be manifested at an open election,” he added.

Erzsébet Szalai is a sociologist and expert of the system change. “The Kádár-regime was an authoritarian system, not a dictatorship, which had been disintegrating from the beginning of the ’80s,” she tells the Budapest Business Journal. “The fact is that different social counter-elite groups were created during the death of the Kádár-system,” she adds.

Among them were the late-Kádárian technocrats, who worked within the state bureaucracy and were advancing in rank with the years, including Miklós Németh, who served as Prime Minister of Hungary from November 24, 1988 to May 23, 1990 (the last man to hold the post before the system change), Lajos Bokros (Minister of Finance between 1995–1996 in the government of Gyula Horn) and György Surányi (president of the Hungarian National Bank between 1992-1992).

Another group was the democratic opposition, which set itself outside the system and had the major role in creating political democracy, as opposed to the technocrats who prioritized the market, Szalai explains. They emerged from politically marginalized intellectuals of the “great” generation, that is, from those excluded from the institutions of power. When this group began to take shape, it adopted a fundamentally left-liberal set of values, the expert wrote in a study in 1999.

A third group, the new reformist intellectuals, hovered between the other two. Their views were very close to those of the democratic opposition but, unlike them, the new reformists had been able to keep their jobs (while democratic opposition members were dismissed).

Social Elite

This was the social elite, and EKA was basically a forum to discuss matters and negotiate the rules that would later govern politics. Talks were nominally about both politics and economics, but the majority of the work covered the former, where the legal and political details of the transition were discussed. Not much was done concerning the economic path as, by the time dedicated talks took place, the late-Kádárian technocrats had risen to political power and their views held sway, Szalai says.

In Szalai’s opinion, it was a mistaken notion in the process of the regime change to completely discard economic and social policy, and to adopt a doctrine of “the less state, the better.”

The starting point for discussions for EKA was that only cornerstones of the peaceful and democratic transition (e.g. electoral law, constitutional court amendment, party law, etc.) should be negotiated, while the ruling party recommended discussing all important political, economic and social issues.

EKA’s reasoning for sidestepping some of the more detailed debate was that the existing Parliament was not legitimate and therefore should not be entrusted with fundamental issues not directly related to the transition, writes political scientist András Bozóki, in an article in literary journal Beszélő.  

As for the economy, EKA said it did not have sufficient information to be competent in the talks, nor did it want to give ideas to a regime already burdened with problems, as MSZMP would use the talks to share responsibility for the economic crisis between itself and the opposition, Bozóki writes.

So, the forum that was, in theory, created for these elite groups to consult about the country’s future failed to hold discussions on economic questions, Szalai says.

“The overriding view was that the market would take care of all the problems, which was a huge mistake,” the expert claims.

Neo-liberalism, which basically says that state ownership should be minimized, everything should be privatized and the market should be given freedom, was a mainstream view at the time.

“The liberals forming the social elite were invited to international conferences and had embraced these views,” Szalai explains.

“The liberals favored private ownership whereas the Third Side I also represented was thinking of mixed ownership: state, self-management and private ownership,” Szalai says. She adds that this group soon found itself a minority as the incumbents and the opposition reached agreement. Part of the reason why the talks in the economic section dissolved fairly soon was this; that there was nothing to discuss, Szalai notes.

The discussion concerning politics was more interesting and intense, not least because there were many differences within EKA regarding on basic questions. The debates, which began in June, revolved around the amendment of the constitution (including the position of President of the Republic and the Constitutional Court), party law and party financing, electoral rights, principles for amending criminal law, publicity, information policy and guarantees of non-violence in transition.

Disagreements and Dissolution

There were serious disagreements, and the talks broke up several times, but over time the MSZMP became more inclined to give some concessions. Still, there was heated debate, for example, about elections, the nomination process and the introduction of the quota system, constituencies and lists, and the institution and election of the president. During the summer of 1989, the MSZMP, led by the Reform Party, negotiated a peaceful transition program to call for multi-party free elections with the Opposition Roundtable.

By September 1989, the relations between the parties in the Opposition Round Table had become increasingly tense, writes Bozóki. Since the organization could only take a decision if all its members agreed, a potential split became more realistic than ever.

Five parties (the Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Friendship Society, Independent Smallholders, Christian Democrats, Democratic Forum and People’s Party) believed that the results achieved during the talks until that point should not be risked and that they needed the sign an agreement with Socialist Workers’ Party, which included several trade-offs.

Four other members (FIDESZ, the Social Democrats, Free Democrats and the Trade Unions League), however, thought that that a democratic state under the rule of law could not be created if the Workers Militia continued to exist; if the election of the President of the Republic were to proceed the parliamentary elections; if MSZMP did not provide an inventory of their assets and leave office and they did not want to enter into bargaining.

By September 18, the day set for the signing of the agreement, only two parties still refused to sign the agreement (FIDESZ and the Free Democrats). That day, the real story of EKA ended, Bozóki writes. Formally, the organization remained together until the free elections in 1990, but its role in the democratic transition ended. Those questions that remained unresolved on September 18, including the election of the president, were decided on a referendum on November 26.

Budapest, June 21, 1989 Representatives of the Opposition Roundtable: István Prepeliczay (Independent Smallholders’ Party, 3rd left), Lajos Für (4th left), György Szabad (5th left), László Sólyom (Hungarian Democratic Forum, 6th left), Iván Pető (6th right), Imre Mécs (Alliance of Free Democrats, 5th right), Tibor Füzessy (Christian Democratic People’s Party, 4th right), János Márton (Hungarian People’s Party, 3rd right), Dr. Imre Boros (Independent Smallholders’ Party, 2nd right, standing) and Sándor Keresztes (Christian Democratic People’s Party, 1st right) at the second round of political conciliation talks of the National Roundtable in the Hunter’s Hall of Parliament. MTI Photo: László Varga