A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on public opinion research in the Kádár regime. There was little reader response to it, most likely because a few hours later on the same day I published the speeches of Péter Feldmájer and Ronald S. Lauder at the Plenary Assembly of the World Jewish Congress in Budapest. I suggest that you take a look at it because today I’m returning to the subject.
If I were living in Budapest I would have access to the Open Society Archives at the Central European University where these old public opinion poll results are stored. But since I don’t live there I have to rely on a summary of one of these sociological studies that appeared in Origo. The study is from 1989; it seeks to understand the reasons for the popularity of the Kádár regime. The Origo journalist picked this particular year because by then, very close to the anticipated regime change, people had little reason to worry about any possible consequences of their answers.
As a point of reference, in 2001 53% of Hungarian adults thought that the years between World War II and the change of regime in 1989 were the happiest time in Hungarian history. By 2008 62% thought so.
According to a study right after the death of János Kádár (July 1989), 50-60% of adults judged Kádár’s role in Hungarian history in a positive light. Moreover, this was the opinion not only of people with minimal educational attainment but of highly educated people as well. When asked what they liked about Kádár they pointed to his modest, puritanic lifestyle and his informality. 87% declared that their impression of him was always positive. They considered him “one of the great benefactors of the Hungarian people” and “the greatest personality in Hungarian politics.”
What did people appreciate in the old regime? That education and health care were “free” and that the state provided pensions for everybody. People insisted that all these benefits should remain even after the regime change “despite the demand for a multi-party system and a market economy.”
The respondents appreciated the steadily rising living standards, especially noticeable in the 1970s after the introduction of the 1968 economic reform (New Economic Mechanism). In 1987 the sociologists asked people what conveniences they expected to be part of their everyday lives. Well over 90% of the population took it for granted that they would have bathrooms, ready hot water, and a refrigerator. 71% lived in apartments with central heating; almost 60% had automatic washing machines and record players and took family holidays. But only 44% of the families had a car or a colored television set. And getting a telephone line was close to impossible. Only 37% of the families had telephones.
When the Horn government was forced to introduce an austerity program in 1995 (the so-called Bokros-csomag, named after Lajos Bokros, minister of finance) it cost the socialists dearly. In 1998 they lost the election. Viktor Orbán, the new prime minister, promptly announced that every family should have “three rooms, three children, and four wheels,” meaning a car. He was appealing to the Hungarian yearning for a better, more comfortable life.
The later Kádár years were marked by an understanding between the rulers and the ruled. MSZMP and the state would leave the population more or less alone; in exchange for that privilege, the population would give up its ability to exercise political rights. “This compromise for twenty years was a success,” the authors of the study concluded.
In December 1989, that is, after the establishment of the Third Republic on October 23, the team of sociologists asked the respondents what issues would determine which political party they would vote for. They had to list these issues in order of importance. This is the list the group as a whole ended up with: (1) living standards, (2) freedom, (3) independence,(4) democracy, (5) equality, (6) socialism, and (7) capitalism.
The compromise between the rulers and the ruled in the Kádár era made a lasting impression on the Hungarian population. Nostalgia for the Kádár regime is not only growing among those who experienced it firsthand but is being “inherited” by those who were either small children before 1990 or not even born by then. And their priorities are not all that different from the priorities of the respondents in 1989.
Freedom was never the centerpiece of their demands. That pretty well explains the fact that, although the current government has severely limited the democratic rights of the people, there is no great resistance. Fidesz’s popularity in the last two years or so hasn’t dropped all that much. But if the Orbán government is unable to raise living standards it might find itself in trouble. And if people wake up to the widespread corruption and visible signs of ill-gotten wealth, there might be a change in public sentiment. Kádár won the hearts and minds of the people in part by not being ostentatious. So, if I were Viktor Orbán I might dial back some of those projects that set the prime minister and his coterie of friends apart from the rest of the population. A private football stadium might be too much. Or those tobacconist shops that can make families millionaires. The “have-nots” rarely believe that the “haves” deserve all their toys.
If the economy doesn’t turn around, there will be nothing to give to those who expect a visible improvement in their standard of living. Then we might see a change in the present acceptance of Viktor Orbán’s growing dictatorial governing style. The question is when the patience of the Hungarians with their mindset inherited from the Kádár regime will run out.