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The ‘Four Yeses’ Referendum and the Election of Árpád Göncz

On May 2, 1990, the National Assembly elected the writer and translator Árpád Göncz as interim President of the Republic of Hungary by a large majority. After many months of disputes between the new parties and the MSZP (the Hungarian Socialist Party, which had grown out of the former ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party or MSZMP), this was one of the more positive and tangible results of the regime change: electing the first president of the now free country.

The Sándor Palace (Sándor-palota) in the Buda Castle complex in the Castle District, is the present day symbol of the president of the republic, being the official residence and workplace (and the 37th largest palace in modern Hungary, according to Wikipedia). It was previously the residence and offices of the prime minister until it suffered bomb damage in World War II. Árpád Göncz, the first president of democrat Hungary, never used it, however, as it was not fully restored until 2003. Photo by Jaione_Garcia / Shutterstock.com

During the transition from the communist one-party system (technically, Hungary was a socialist country, but almost everyone refers to it as communist) into a multi-party democracy, the reburial of the executed 1956 leader Imre Nagy proved a catalyst.

The hardline Károly Grósz was outranked by the reformist wing within the MSZMP and the ruling party began discussions with the opposition groups within the framework of the so-called Round Table Talks.  (Both the reburial and the Round Table Talks are discussed in detail in this series in previous issues of the Budapest Business Journal.)

The question of the post-communist presidential position proved one of the most problematic disputes between the parties. The MSZMP suggested a directly elected semi-presidential system; however, this proposal was strongly rejected by the sharply anti-communist Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) and the then liberal youth party Fidesz.

This was because they, and the leadership of the Socialist Workers’ Party, all assumed Imre Pozsgay, a head of the reform faction within the MSZMP and one of the most popular Hungarian politicians in those months, would win.

The smaller opposition parties wanted a parliamentary system, proportional representation, and a weak presidency. However, they too believed that Pozsgay would be elected president.

In August 1989, József Antall, leader of the center right Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) presented a new proposal: a ceremonial presidential system with indirect elections by parliament, but, since free parliamentary elections had not yet been held, with the first election by the people.

Excluding the SZDSZ, Fidesz and the Democratic Confederation of Free Trade Unions (LIGA), the remaining five opposition groups and the MSZMP accepted and signed the proposal. Despite this, Fidesz and SZDSZ succeeded in collecting enough signatures to trigger a referendum.

This four-question plebiscite was held in Hungary on November 26, 1989. Voters were asked: Should the president be elected after parliamentary elections; should organizations related to the MSZMP be banned from workplaces; should the MSZMP account for properties owned or managed by it; and should the Workers’ Militia be dissolved.

The SZDSZ asked people to give “four yeses” , and consequently, the vote was presented as a very positive message towards the population. All four proposals were duly passed, the first narrowly by 50.1% of voters, and the remaining three by 95% of voters. Voter turnout was 58%.

Árpád Göncz. Photo by Northfoto/Shutterstock.com

A Popular President  

As for the first indirect presidential election, it was held in Hungary on August 3, 1990, following the parliamentary election in March of that year. Árpád Göncz from the liberal SZDSZ, the speaker of the National Assembly and as such acting head of state, had an absolute majority of the votes.

Göncz was a popular Hungarian writer, translator, agronomist and liberal politician and was well known for the role he played in the 1956 Uprising. After the revolution was crushed by the Soviets, Göncz was arrested on political grounds and was jailed for six years from 1957 to 1963.

In prison, he spent the time learning to read and write English. Once released, that was to serve him well; he translated more than 100 literary works, and wrote his own English-language prose.

Some of his notable translations include E. L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime” and “World’s Fair”, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, Thomas Wolfe’s “Of Time and the River”, and William Faulkner’s “Sartoris” and “The Sound and the Fury”. Göncz referred to the latter, which employs several narrative styles, including stream of consciousness, as his “greatest challenge.”

However, his most famous translation is J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which gave him nation-wide recognition among younger people, who were not otherwise really into politics.

On August 4, Göncz was elected for a full four-year term as president by the National Assembly by 295 votes to 13, thus officially becoming Hungary’s first democratically elected head of state. He was also Hungary’s first non-communist president since the forced resignation of Zoltán Tildy 42 years earlier.

After taking the oath before the new legislative speaker György Szabad (of the MDF), Göncz stated in his inaugural speech, “I am not, I cannot be a servant of parties, party interests. In my whole life, within and outside party, I served and I will serve for national independence, freedom of thought, freedom of faith in the idea of free homeland, and social justice with human rights without discrimination and exclusion.”

He added, “I would like to serve the unprotected, the defenseless people, those, who lacked the means to protect themselves both in the ‘feudal crane feather world’ [a reference to Miklós Horthy’s Hungary right wing Regency of the ‘kingdom without a king’] and in the ‘world of most equals among equals’ [the communist regime between 1945 and 1989].”

Göncz went on to serve a second term as president from 1995 until August 4, 2000. He died on October 6, 2015 in Budapest, aged 93. In accordance with his his wishes, he was buried without official state representation or military honors, although many former and sitting politicians attended.

A Pact for Regime Change

The first free, multi-party parliamentary elections since 1947 were held in two rounds, on March 25 and April 8, 1990. The MDF won 42% of the 386 seats in Parliament, with the SZDSZ best of the rest at 24%. With no party holding an absolute majority, the MDF, the Independent Smallholders’ Party (FKGP) and the Christian Democrats (KDNP) agreed to form a coalition agreement. (We will go into much more detail on the first democratic elections in an upcoming issue.)

On April 29, 1990, the MDF and the SZDSZ signed an agreement to address the stability of democratic institutions and public law issues affecting the country’s governance, although it was announced only on May 2, when Parliament first formed. The document was signed by József Antall, István Balsai, Imre Kónya, Katalin Kutrucz and László Salamon on behalf of the MDF, and János Kis, Péter Tölgyessy and Iván Pető on behalf of the SZDSZ.

In concluding the pact, the two parties assumed that there would be a need for cooperation between the ruling parties and the opposition on certain fundamental issues, because the constitutional constraints, especially the wide range of laws to be passed by a qualified majority, could make the country inoperable. In the interests of the stability and governance of democratic institutions, some previous provisions needed to be repealed and constitutional amendments implemented.

The negotiating representatives of the MDF and the SZDSZ believed that Act XXXI of 1989 amending the Constitution law, according to which rules on fundamental rights and obligations can only be laid down with a two-thirds majority, made the operation of the executive almost impossible in practice.

Another issue to be resolved was that on February 27, 1990, the last non-elected Parliament, ignoring the result of the so-called “four-yeses” referendum, decided that the President of the Republic should be elected directly.

The parties, therefore, agreed that the concept of constitutional law should be removed from the constitution and instead the basic institutions and fundamental rights that would require a qualified majority should be listed. The annex to the agreement indicated which laws required the amendment or adoption of a vote by a two-thirds majority of all of the members present, with the 20 most important laws listed item by item.

Interim

The document made the election of the President of the Republic a power of the National Assembly and stated that after the necessary constitutional amendments, Parliament would immediately elect the head of state. The parties jointly nominated Árpád Göncz, a member of the National Council of the SZDSZ, and president of the Hungarian Writers’ Union as interim president of the National Assembly.

On May 2, the new Parliament elected Göncz Speaker of the House and interim head of state by 339 votes and György Szabad the first deputy speaker by 348 votes. When Göncz was elected President of the Republic on August 3, Szabad became the Speaker of the Parliament.

The MDF-SZDSZ pact also stipulated that Parliament would decide on the person of the prime minister, and the ministers would be appointed by the president on the proposal of the prime minister. A motion of no confidence against ministers could not be started, only against the PM, in the form of a “constructive motion of no confidence” (in other words, the prime minister could only be overthrown by electing another candidate for the post).

The pact also included that the constitution should provide for the foundations of the legal status of the National Bank of Hungary and the State Audit Office. Another important provision was that to preserve the independence of public service radio and television, whose respective leaders would be appointed by the President of the Republic on the proposal of the prime minister. It was further proposed to elect a Commissioner or Ombudsman for National Rights, to protect the rights and interests of all nationalities.

The “separate path” chosen by the two strongest political parties via their pact has been repeatedly criticized by the other parties, but it laid foundations for governability and political stability.

It created a strong head of government and a “moderately weak” head of state. But the situation also created some contradictions, and subsequent fierce domestic political battles were blamed on the pact by many.