The Helsinki Commission’s last comprehensive report on Hungary’s implementation of Human Dimension commitments was published in December 1988. At that time the Hungarian communist regime was pushing ahead of its more repressive neighbors in East-Central Europe, gradually abandoning active ideological indoctrination of Hungarian citizens, tacitly granting legitimacy to competing ideologies, allowing citizens to retreat into private life, and easing the situation of human rights activists.
The historic transition to a multi-party system, which accelerated rapidly over the course of 1989, was markedly peaceful. Roundtable negotiations between the government and the opposition worked to set the terms for the parliamentary elections in March 1990, as well as to curb the influence of the party in the workplace, the military and the judiciary. By the end of the year, some 50 political parties had been registered, of which six had significant national support. The elections of March 1990 demonstrated the clear progress Hungary had made toward democracy. A coalition government led by Prime Minister Jozsef Antall and the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) assumed the reins of power; on the basis of an important agreement between the ruling parties and the opposition, however, Arpad Gonez of the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) became president. With democratically elected representatives in place, serious institutional reform got underway.
Since that time, Hungary has generally received high marks for its record on human rights and political stability. The important role played by the Constitutional Court has bolstered respect for the rule of law, and Hungary has so far managed to avoid some of the tensions that have complicated the transition for many of its neighbors: inter-ethnic strife, crippling political infighting, and civil unrest.
At the same time, it is too soon to conclude that the progress Hungary has made is deeply rooted or complete. Ongoing battles over the role, and control, of the media raise serious questions about the sanctity of freedom of expression and opinion. The vocal nationalism and xenophobia of Istvan Csurka – a prominent figure in the MDF until June 1993 – and continued, if isolated, incidents of violence and prejudice against Roma (Gypsies) and foreigners challenge the aim of mutual respect and non-discrimination. finally, tensions within the ruling coalition, between the president and the late prime minister (Jozsef Antall died at the age of 61 on December 12, 1993), and among the opposition suggest that Hungary’s reputation for political stability may be fading as may the public’s taste for swift reform: current opinion polls show the former communist party at 25 percent, with the ruling MDF at only 8 percent.
Certainly Hungary has made significant strides in democratization in the five years since the Commission’s last implementation review. Today’s Hungary is judged not in comparison with the communist past, but by the standards of modern Western democracies. This report will examine some of the most pressing challenges that remain — challenges which, in many cases, are the subject of lively debate and discussion in Hungary itself.