Hungarians were happier in the Kádár regime

This is what a recent poll concluded. Six out of ten people, including younger folks, think that they were happier in the days before the change of regime. According to sociologists this feeling is based not just on the usual nostalgia for the happy days of youth. Instead, analysts think that 60% of the population would like to see the paternalistic regime of yore return. Not, I assume, the years before 1956, which were anything but happy: the Rákosi regime was a brutal dictatorship. Nor the years immediately after the unsuccessful revolution, which saw the oppression of many thousands of people. Rather the "idyllic" '80s.

The pollsters broke the results down by age group. Respondents older than 50 are predictably the most attached to the Kádár days: 80% think that life was peachy pie before the change of regime. The situation is not much better among people between the ages of 40 and 49. Here 75% say that they were happier twenty years ago. Those who were school children or young adults in 1990 are less enamored with the past, but still 55% of them think that life was better in those days. Naturally, the youngest generation, which has no first-hand experince of life before the arrival of democracy, is the least enthusiastic about the Kádár regime: only 24% think that those days were happier than now. Most likely that is what they hear from their parents. After all, the oldest of last group was only about ten years old at the time of the regime change.

Seven years earlier, in 2001, a similar poll was taken. At that time just over 50% felt that they had been happier in the old regime, in contrast to the unrounded 2008 figure of 62%. In 2008, 50% of those with a college degree, almost 60% of those with a high school education, and 65% of those with an eighth-grade education think that life was much better twenty or more years ago.

Pál Tamás, a member of the Institute of Sociology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, is certain that these results are derived not only from the usual nostalgia for the past. According to him, in the whole region (i.e. in countries that managed to abandon the Soviet overlordship and the forced socialist system) already in the 1990s there were signs that people were disappointed. They expected something more. An East German worker gainfully employed was less happy than an unemployed West German worker. Today people in the region miss the security of the "good old days." They don't know what to expect and crave the safety net that they lack in today's capitalist world.

According to Zoltán Kiszelly, a political scientist, MSZP's loss of  support is mainly due to its abandonment of the old paternalistic practices of the socialist party. Viktor Orbán, on the other hand, discovered that the great majority of Hungarians would like to return to a paternalistic state and so changed tactics. Now he talks about a large, powerful state that serves the Hungarian people. I underlined "Hungarian" because the Fidesz parrot commando, as it is called in Hungary, doesn't talk about people but always about Hungarian people. In brief, they combine nationalism with socialist paternalism. And this is, let's face it, a potent combination.

However, we know very well that a return to socialist paternalism is impossible because economic pressures don't allow it. There is no way that any government could return to the old practices and spend and spend and spend the limited amount of money at its disposal. Fidesz may talk, may evoke, may excite. But if the party came to power, it would have to weigh the merits of a roughly balanced budget against the rush of irresponsibly flooding the social net, currently the highest draw on the government budget, with money. (And don't forget Hungary now has the EU looking over its shoulder.)

The challenge for MSZP is to regain its old supporters without sinking into staggering debt and suffering sluggish economic growth. To make Hungarians understand that there is no way back to the good old days and that perhaps life will be happier one day. But it's hard for the party to run on the Reagan slogan–"Are you better off than you were four (or, in the case of the Hungarian poll, twenty) years ago?" The answer would be an unequivocal "no."

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1: I think that the outcome of these polls is heavily influenced by the nature of the question that is asked. It would be interesting to see what the result would be for this question: Would you exchange the improved housing, consumer goods, motor vehicles and foreign holidays you have purchased since the change of regime for improved job security and a more comprehensive welfare system? 2: “Now he talks about a large, powerful state that serves the Hungarian people” I’d like to underline that for the majority of Hungrians – including my Fodor fan wife – the meaning of “Hungarian” excludes the gypsy and jewish minorities in Hungary, but includes ethnic Hungarians living outside of the Republic of Hungary’s borders. 3: “Viktor Orbán … discovered that the great majority of Hungarians would like to return to a paternalistic state” I’m no expert in Hungarian or French history but my intuition is that there is still a conflict to be resolved over what kind of state an independent Hungary should be. This stems from the debate initiated by Szechényi’s reforms, he favoured a liberal oligarchical state based on the English Model, or as Kossuth favoured, an popular autocracic state based… Read more »

It is not only – or perhaps even primarily – the MSZP whose popularity is suffering due to the nostalgia for the Kádár era. A couple of years ago Gáspár Miklós Tamás remarked that support for the MDF and the SZDSZ was so low because they are the two parties most associated with the 1989-90 change of regime. Their low ratings indicate how Hungarians feel about the changes, as he put it.