In February 1989 the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt or mszmp) formally accepted the principles of multi-party democracy.footnote Within thirteen months of this decision, free elections were held and a complex political system emerged in which six parties came to represent distinct political fields in parliament. This period offers a fascinating study of political institution-building and sophisticated coalition politics. The aim of this article is to analyse these emergent political fields: to identify the principal issues around which they are organized, the political constituencies on which they draw, the way in which actors competing for these fields emerge, and the process by which their struggle unfolds. Our empirical observations are confined mainly to Hungary, but our conclusions might well have wider application within Central Europe. The main thrust of our argument is that during the post-Communist transition in Central Europe three different political fields developed: the liberal, the Christian-nationalist (centre–right), and the social-democratic. The Hungarian elections in March–April 1990 produced an impressive victory for the Christian-nationalist parties. With the exception of Czechoslovakia (where the victorious Civil Forum is on the liberal side of the political spectrum, and opted rather than was forced into coalition with the Christian Democrats), this seems to be the dominant trend in the entire non-Balkan region of Central Europe. The hegemonic forces are of a Christian-nationalist type in East Germany, Poland, Croatia, and Slovenia.footnote1

In Hungary, the Christian-nationalist field is made up of several political parties: the nationalist Hungarian Democratic Forum (Magyar Demokrata Fórum or mdf), the petty-bourgeois Independent Smallholders’ Party (Független Kisgazdapárt or fkgp), and the conservative Christian Democratic Party (Kereszténydemokrata Néppart or kdnp). Despite some differences in their political programmes, these parties have combined to form a coalition government. Together they hold almost 60 per cent of the seats in parliament. The liberals are represented by the Alliance of Free Democrats (Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége or szdsz) and the Alliance of Young Democrats (Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége or fidesz). Between them, these two parties polled one third of all votes cast and, for this reason alone, constitute the main source of opposition to the government. Finally, the political Left in Hungary is represented by the Hungarian Socialist Party (Magyar Szocialista Párt or mszp). It is constituted by the reform wing of the old Communist Party and, because of its relatively poor performance in the elections, holds less than 10 per cent of all seats in the current parliament. It is interesting to note that, in spite of such variation in the political orientation of the different parties, not a single organization has come forward to represent the social-democratic field in Hungary.

It might be argued that the outcome of the elections was not a surprise in that it reflected a return to the political traditions of the region. Such reasoning has, in fact, inspired at least one American commentator to label the current transformation of Central Europe as a conservative revolution footnote2—an argument not without historical support. In Hungary, for example, democratic elections prior to the establishment of the socialist regime repeatedly produced centre–right victories: in 1945 the Smallholders’ Party (Kisgazdapárt) won 57 per cent of the vote; in 1938 the Party of Hungarian Life (Magyar Élet Pártja) won 70 per cent of the vote; and in 1906 the Independence Party (Függetlenségi Párt) gained 62 per cent of all seats in parliament.footnote3 A glance at election results from the past might suggest that embedded in Hungarian political culture is a strong taste for Christian-nationalist political rule.

In the course of the past few months, political commentators attempting to predict the outcome of events were in the position of an audience seated in a theatre with the curtain still down. What, they wondered, was in preparation after forty years of Communist rule? Astonishingly, as the curtain was raised, the audience was confronted with a still life: the ‘act’ that was interrupted forty years ago with the transition to socialism seemed to have resumed, as if nothing had happened in between.

Given the success of the centre–right in pre-socialist elections, one might have anticipated the historical pendulum moving rightward after decades of left-wing deviations. Such expectations not withstanding, we believe that the restoration of prewar politics in Hungary requires an explanation. During the past forty years, after all, Hungarian society has undergone fundamental changes. For example, the peasantry and the genteel middle class, which have formed the usual social base for centre–right political forces in the past, were virtually eliminated under the socialist regime.footnote4 At the same time, the postwar industrialization of the Hungarian economy created a large industrial proletariat and, along with this, the emergence of a socialdemocratic field. In the light of such changes, one would have expected to see a general weakening of the traditional centre–right and a strengthening of social-democratic sentiment in this period. Surprisingly, however, the outcome of the March–April elections produced the opposite result. How are we to account for the exceptionally poor predictive power of structural factors and the apparent continuity of political culture? It is intended to shed some light on this apparent paradox in the following discussion.