From “Model Change” to Regime Change: The Metamorphosis of the MSZMP’s Tactics in the Democratic Transition
Published In: András Bozóki [ed.], The Roundtable Talks of 1989: The Genesis of Hungarian Democracy. Budapest-New York: CEU Press, 2002. pp. 41-69.
“… we neither wanted nor want to reorganize or to accomplish pluralism, but rather to find a way of dealing with it …”
Mihály Jassó, at the February 7, 1989 meeting of the MSZMP Politburo
Parliamentary or presidential socialism
By the beginning of the 1980s, the communist systems had exhausted their economic reserves and were merely accumulating debt and - as a result of declining living standards - an increase in social tension. Nonetheless, they were rather reluctant to introduce changes - or, in the wording of the time, “reforms” - and did so only at the end of the decade, at a point when the switch from the old system to something new seemed inevitable. At the beginning of 1989, Soviet leaders hired advisers who, seeing that the empire was already on the decline, worked out various scenarios that attempted to predict the events which were soon expected to unfold in the countries of the socialist camp, and whose course the local communist parties would have to control as much as possible. Among these scenarios, those that analyzed the prospects for Hungary and Poland were of primary importance, since these two countries were already the furthest toward implementing changes.
In October 1988, the Soviet party leadership decided to establish a committee to evaluate the current situation and to develop some proposals to coordinate the necessary measures for handling the crisis. The International Committee commissioned, among others, the Department of International Relations (DIR) of the CPSU CC and the Bogomolov Institute to provide strategic-political forecasts for the Committee. In their reports, completed in February 1989, the experts of both teams agreed that the economic and political situations of Hungary and Poland had deteriorated dramatically and as a result, the MSZMP and PUWP would have no choice but to legalize the opposition and to involve some part of it in the exercise of power in some way. They were under no doubt that in any event, developments were heading towards a multiparty system, but with respect to pluralism, they hoped that socialism had become so deeply rooted in Eastern-Central European societies that a rapid transition into something entirely different was not to be expected. Instead, they believed that the transition would most likely be gradual - or, in the words of the Hungarian party leaders at home, “organic.” The optimal scenario for the Soviets entailed “smooth” democratization, which would take place under the initiation and direction of the communist party, and which would lead to a mixed economic system and to the involvement, based on mutual negotiations and agreement, of some part of the opposition in the exercise of power. Consequently the experts of the Soviet leadership would welcome a form of “parliamentary or presidential socialism” in both Poland and Hungary, a new model, based on a strong centralized power, guaranteeing these countries’ further avoidance of a hostile foreign policy against the Soviet Union even in the framework of a multi party system. In the pessimistic scenario envisioned by the DIR of the CPSU CC, these changes would occur in the form of a reactive process, whereby the party was forced to make further and further concessions, eventually drifting to the periphery of political life. This process would “urge the opposition to make increasingly greedy claims, paving the way for society to break away from socialism.”
In evaluating the political conditions at the beginning of 1989, the DIR of the CPSU CC believed that organic development could primarily be counted on in Poland. Polish society had already become tired of the constant crisis, and thus the PUWP could work out a “constructive cooperation” with the opposition. In Hungary, however, the report said, “the situation might develop into quite unexpected directions.”
The optimistic scenario produced by the Bogomolov Institute had a similar assessment concerning the possibility of achieving agreement for managing the crisis in Poland. The pessimistic version, however, also considered it conceivable that the roundtable talks might come to a deadlock, and a protracted crisis would emerge Thus, the possibility of having to introduce martial law again could not be excluded. As for Hungary, the experts of the institute believed that the most likely outcome was that the MSZMP’s reformist wingwould become stronger in the leadership, and that it would then gradually form a coalition with the social democratic movement. The more pessimistic forecast, on the other hand, predicted that the influence of the conservative forces in the party would grow, which then would significantly reduce the MSZMP’s chances in the upcoming elections and as a result, would transfer the role of initiator to the opposition.
Thus, in the first half of 1989, the most important task of PUWP and MSZMP was to prepare for a partial and “controlled” division of power and to win the opposition’s consent to this in negotiations. A basic precondition of even the most optimistic scenario was permitting the organizations of the opposition to appear as legal negotiators in the political scene. To this effect, the January 10-11 session of the Hungarian Parliament passed the Law of Public Meeting and Assembly, which made it possible to establish political parties. In Poland, the Central Committee of PUWP - after negotiating and maneuvering with the opposition for half a year - published its position on the issues of political and trade union pluralism on January 16-17, 1989, thereby acknowledging Solidarity as a legal organization. With the removal of legal obstacles in both countries, roundtable negotiations could be held with the participation of the newly legalized organizations, and both parties could begin to implement their most optimal and optimistic scenarios.
One party pluralism or a multiparty system
The MSZMP’s journey from the announcement of pluralism to the recognition of the multiparty system was by no means spectacular. The policy statement of the 1985 Congress of MSZMP promised solutions that were optimistic for that time and, under the current circumstances, overly ambitious. Not only did the growth and stabilization predicted at the Congress fail to materialize, but, as a result of the still misguided economic policy, in the second half of 1987 even the highest-ranking leaders of the party came to recognize openly that the system was in a state of total and general crisis, and that more radical and serious changes and reforms were required to maintain the socialist structure. To this effect, in December 1987 they recognized that there was no time to wait until the next scheduled party congress and thus decided, in harmony with a similar Soviet decision, to hold a special party meeting. Despite the replacement of Kádár and the reorganization of the Politburo, however, the declarations of this May 1988 party conference were rather cautious and did not genuinely try to anticipate the events. As a result, they did not seem to pose any danger for the system in the short term. These cautious steps notwithstanding, however, it was quite clear that the MSZMP had no other choice but experiment with some kind of a division of power, due to the need to execute some pressing and rather unpopular tasks in economic management while at the same time trying to maintain social stability and a sense of societal satisfaction. As a first, rather Dodonaean and vague attempt at this, the party meeting announced that it envisioned the inevitable establishment of socialist market economy within the social frameworks of socialist pluralism based on “the leading role of the party.”
Underlying this vague statement was an obvious attempt to play for time. Although the leadership of MSZMP did take some steps towards political reforms - as was shown later by the amendment of the constitution and the bills under preparation -they also hoped that in the meantime, with the help of these modified or new laws, the asynchronism between economic and political reforms could be maintained in the long run. In other words, what they hoped for was that in any event, the economic stabilization program would bring some results, and if this could be combined with delayed and limited political reforms, then the MSZMP could emerge from the general crisis with no significant loss of prestige and without having to introduce a real division of power. Therefore - in spite of the fact that work on the modernization of the constitution and the introduction of the party law was already underway - up until the spring of 1989, the MSZMP did not have any concrete and final ideas concerning the target of the political transition. Until February 1989, the party leadership held the spoken and unspoken conviction that in the historical near future, pluralism meant no more than some kind of corporate, nominal division of power within the one party system. The events that took place in foreign and home policy during the first few months of 1989, however, forced the party leadership to reconsider their position and to attempt a more straightforward answer to the challenges faced by the socialist camp.
The first obvious turn in the MSZMP’s policy occurred as the result of an “incident” within the party itself, when Imre Pozsgay - capitalizing on the MSZMP’s Central Committee resolution, made at the end of 1988, which made it possible for party leaders to publicize their views without first requesting permission - made public the position of the “historical sub-committee” working for the CC, on 1956. The problem lied not in the content of the Pozsgay’s views, for MSZMP itself also wanted to evaluate the issue accurately. It was just for this reason that in June 1988, the party leadership commissioned four teams to analyze political, social, and economic processes, and to provide an evaluation of the past as well. These internal analyses, however, were never intended to be made public in their original form. Expert analyses usually had to undergo political screening first, so that no one would know what the party knew, only what the party wanted them to know. On January 28, 1989, Imre Pozsgay violated this unwritten rule of procedure when he announced during an interview with the radio program 168 Hours that the committee regarded 1956 as a people’s l uprising .
This announcement evoked unexpected, or at least seemingly unexpected, reactions in the Politburo. In no time at all, the debate on the issue transformed into a debate not only on the past, but on the inevitability of a radical change of views. Perhaps the January Pozsgay announcement was just a pretext on the part of some of the more “initiative-minded” leaders of the MSZMP, but it is a fact that this announcement provoked and catalyzed various developments within the party, and thus indirectly brought about sudden and ever-escalating changes in Hungarian home policy. When the MSZMP Politburo dealt with the Pozsgay issue on the January 31 special session and the February 7 normal session, it became clear that the party leaders did not want to risk openly criticizing Imre Pozsgay for his refractory behavior, as they feared that such a move would reveal that the party no longer had any genuine center. It is most likely that they were afraid that in the “charismatic vacuum” after the fall of Kádár, many of the party members viewed Pozsgay as such a central figure. Therefore, the members of the Politburo came to the conclusion that their official position should be the following: there is no Pozsgay issue. They discussed in detail what choreography and rhetoric would be suitable to make the - by now rather unpredictable - Central Committee accept and understand their position on the issue.
Yet what was striking in the course of events was not this incident, but another one which took place at the January 31 Politburo meeting when Rezső Nyers suddenly -out of the blue in the heat of discussion - declared that as far as he was concerned, he would not mind having a multiparty system.
The unexpected proposal was soon followed by a political declaration. At the February 7 Politburo meeting, the agenda dealing with current political issues and the reformation of the political system treated as a fact - a reality - the party’s acceptance in principle of the declaration of the multiparty system, and this declaration then took place at the 1989 February 10-11 meeting of the Central Committee.
Long-lasting transition - a new model
The time of the wait-and-see policy implemented since May 1988 was thus up. At the February 7, 1989 Politburo meeting, Imre Pozsgay characterized the period just past - amounting to hardly ten months - as one in which there had been some hope for pluralism within the one party system, provided that if during the period in question, the various platforms had been given a chance to manifest themselves openly within the party. The pressure of the external “streams” that had begun to be organized at that time, however, was so strong that this chance had been lost for good. Therefore, in the transitional period to follow, which was estimated as some five years long, a form of multiparty system must be established which could guarantee the MSZMP’s leading role. This view met with the support of the whole body.
In accordance with the generally-accepted Soviet scenario for the whole of Eastern Europe, a long-lasting transition was planned - or at least one lasting much longer than what actually soon took place. As for the stages of the transition, there were some divisions within the party based on generational differences. According to Károly Grósz, the first stage was to last until December 1990, which was the time of the next party congress, while Imre Nagy, head of the communist youth organization, who belonged to the younger generation, was already thinking in terms of a new trend - a new discourse, as it were - aimed at transforming society. He thus instead believed that the endpoint of the first stage would be the summer of 1990, when the next parliamentary elections would take place. Members of the body agreed, however, that the second phase of the transition would last until the 1995 general elections, and that in order to implement this schedule, legal and political guarantees should be developed.
It was only Károly Grósz who mentioned the use of non-political instruments, referring to the possibility that he would also consider other means as well: “[…] there is a power which is capable and willing to take up arms in order to prevent any political transition. One does not need to resort to arms, however, in order to change a governmental structure, here political means must be [used].” The hint did not receive a lively response; the body continued to think in terms of legal and political solutions. Some believed, however, that as a kind of a legal guarantee, the modernized constitution should also establish the hegemony of the MSZMP, but this proposal was rejected by the more realistic members, who said that this would only exhibit the party’s lack of confidence and would not in fact be able to guarantee anything.
With all this in mind, in February 1989 the MSZMP’s views on the necessary political reformation was that, in the course of at least five years of transition, the leading social role of the party could be guaranteed primarily through electoral law, the institution of the presidency, and the two-chamber parliamentary system, which was at that time still considered to be viable. These views were partly supported and partly altered in the spring of 1989 by the outcome of the Polish roundtable talks, and further by the personal consultations carried out with the leaders of PUWP in Poland: first, in March, by secretary of the CC György Fejti and expert for the CC András Tóth, and later in April by Imre Pozsgay. In the course of exchanging ideas, it turned out that the Polish party leaders also predicted the “deep reformation” of the political system to be a long-lasting process, in which social consensus and political stability were both regarded as equally important. For the Polish leaders, one guarantee of this long-lasting transition would be the two-chamber parliament that could stabilize the balance of forces. Dress rehearsal for free and competitive elections would take place in the senate, while the mandates in the seym would be decided well before the elections, over the course of negotiations and compromise. Another guarantee of a less drastic and not too rapid transition would be the introduction of a strong institution of presidency.
By that time, the Hungarian party leadership had already had some full-time experts dealing with the issues of the political transition, and they - with undoubtedly keen insight - very early on had expressed their doubts concerning the viability of following the Polish scenario in Hungary. In the notes prepared from these technical exchanges, György Fejti and András Tóth considered a preliminary agreement and a division of mandates as rather risky. Although the leaders of the PUWP hoped that their opposition was not ready to compete in the elections, the Hungarian experts nonetheless believed that if the PUWP achieved bad results in the elections, this could corrode the agreement concerning the seym elections on both political and moral grounds. (This prediction of the Hungarian experts stood the test of time, in spite of the fact that the results of the June elections took not only the Polish communist party by surprise, but the opposition itself as well.)
Therefore, the MSZMP was thinking in terms of different solutions to guaranteeing its political role in the long term. As far as institutional and legal guarantees were concerned, introducing the institution of the presidency was given primary importance by the Hungarian party leaders as well, but the conception of the leadership and the party’s legal experts working on the modification of the constitution underwent a fundamental change in the period from September, 1988 to the spring of 1989. In September, 1988 it was still conceivable to establish a presidential system “possibly to the extent” that the post of the state president and prime minister would be concentrated in the hands of one person and even in February, 1989 a presidential system in general was discussed at the meeting of the MSZMP CC International, Legal and Administrative Committee. The draft of the constitution completed by the end of January, however - although leaving the issue open entirely - now only proposed the establishment of the institution of president with “medium” powers. Thus the Hungarian party leadership, increasingly diverging from the Polish solution, instead of introducing a “presidential socialism”, gradually advanced toward the conception of “parliamentary socialism” for which system the sample was to serve the coalition period between 1945 and 1948.
Earlier, in anticipation of semi-free elections, a plan for a two-chamber parliament was also taken into consideration, but this was soon rejected by the majority of Politburo members at the May 26, 1989 meeting, as it was now regarded as foreign to Hungarian tradition as well as unjustifiable and inadequate in terms of the size of the country. They did not exclude the possibility, however, that perhaps two different election laws could be worked out: one for the first transitional phase - for the time of compromises - and another for the later phase when truly competitive elections could take place.
Rejection of the two-chamber system, however, did not mean that the Hungarian party had given up on the compromise scenario. To the contrary, this was still considered to be the most promising route towards establishing a new model based on consensus. Only in a way different from that of the PUWP. In the plans of the MSZMP, the elections were also to have been preceded by negotiations and compromises, but instead of an open division of mandates and the separation of parliament into two chambers, one based on competitive elections and the other on compromise, the MSZMP offered part of the opposition an informal, quasi-coalition form based on compromise. The leaders of the party hoped that this - according to their plans - essentially communist-led coalition would remind the now-reviving historical parties of a precedent in Hungarian history: a special division of power in the coalition period between 1945-48. This scenario would have been similar to a rewound film. For this reason, in the first half of 1989, the MSZMP had extremely high hopes that its proposal would find support in the opposition. The only thing that was not yet clear was the “technology” through which a durable compromise could be achieved.
Bi- and multilateral negotiations
As early as the beginning of 1989, it became pressing that the Hungarian party leadership, following the example of the Polish talks begun on February 6, should also initiate similar “consultations” with the opposition organizations, which were at that time labeled as “alternative.” These negotiations, it was also outlined, would serve a double strategy for the MSZMP. This strategy, as formulated in the position plan prepared for the 1989 February 10-11 meeting of the MSZMP CC, stated that the party was ready to conduct bi- and multilateral negotiations, and one topic on the proposed agenda was precisely “the discussion of the issues concerning cooperation.”
In the framework of multilateral talks, there was some talk of establishing a national consensus board, although not in the form which the New March Front had proposed - and which the party leadership had rejected several times - but in one that gave a clear dominant role to the MSZMP. The MSZMP considered these multilateral negotiations to be a forum for consultation which would provide a kind of a legitimizing umbrella for the transition underway, almost as a symbol of national unity and solidarity. At the same time, there was consensus in the leadership that several inter-party negotiations should also be conducted, primarily with the now-reviving historical parties, concerning how the “responsibility of governing” could be shared in the first phase of the planned transition. These bilateral negotiations were mostly aimed at finding potential coalition partners who were ready to accept the leading role of the MSZMP and the conditions that were labeled as the MSZMP’s platform. At the February 7, 1989 meeting of the Politburo, this was worded by Miklós Németh in the following way: “we would start talking about what the platform is, or for what [program] we would request a coalition.” These conditions were summarized by the party leadership in the Central Committee’s previously mentioned February 1989 resolution: 1. Acceptance of the prevailing constitution and laws. 2. Acceptance of the socialist way of social development. 3. Respect for the international alliance obligations of the country, while striving for the simultaneous dissolution of the two military blocks.
In the spring of 1989, the MSZMP hoped that there would be parties with whom, if the right strategy was followed in negotiations, they could achieve agreement on some kind of a popular-democratic quasi-coalition before the general elections, and that there would be some other parties with whom they could cooperate after the elections on some issues. In the hopes of the party leaders, both solutions would guarantee that in the long run, the MSZMP would come out of the inevitable political transition without severe loss of prestige and power.
Certain paragraphs of the party law then under preparation were also formulated in the spirit of such considerations. Section 2 of Paragraph 6 of the draft made public in April and May of 1989 stated that the budget subsidies for the parties forming electoral alliances should be determined “on the basis of their concordant statement.” In this draft, the MSZMP wanted to demonstrate that among its reform plans, it took such legally guaranteed monetary incentives for potential coalition partners seriously - in return for an appropriate trade-in value. At the beginning of March, the semi-official bilateral negotiations were started in this spirit, and they continued throughout the time of the trilateral talks.
Yet the hopes attached to the bilateral talks ultimately failed, because in addition to the constant pressure of economic processes, two different factors of home policy influenced the expectations of the MSZMP concerning a slow “evolutionary” transition. One was the unexpected collaboration and negotiating tactics of the opposition, while the other was the dissension of the party leadership and the open attitude and actions of its own internal opposition, or as it was often put in short: the dissolution of the party.
In the weeks following the declaration of the multiparty system in February 1989, the MSZMP drew the necessary first conclusions: if other parties were allowed to exist, then it was quite viable to believe that both the newly formed “proto-parties” and the historical parties would be willing to discuss the issues related to the drafts of the party bill and the electoral bill. Nonetheless, they still considered the next step to be that of convening a representative meeting, whose function would be consultative and whose participants would be chosen by the MSZMP.
The first serious shock struck the leadership of the MSZMP at the end of March or beginning of April, when it turned out that the opposition organizations were not only able to show their strength in mass demonstrations, as they did on March 15th, but that they were also determined to join their forces - partly giving up their independence for a time - and appear as a united negotiating partner against the MSZMP. One very clear sign of this was that at the beginning of April, the Opposition Roundtable (OR) refused to attend the meeting organized by the MSZMP, which was to pave the way for the upcoming broader negotiations, without the Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Society and the Federation of Young Democrats (FYD). Moreover, in its press statement, the OR made it clear that those organizations which had been members of the OR since March 22 were only willing to negotiate collectively, and they had further conditions as to the competence, form, and themes of the planned meetings.
The potential success of the planned bilateral negotiations was thus jeopardized, since the participating organizations of the OR were no longer in the position to conduct open negotiations with the MSZMP. Informal bilateral talks were going on in the background nonetheless, but the MSZMP was now forced to think in terms of cooperation after the elections instead of reaching a coalition agreement beforehand, and thus tried to prepare the political conditions for this. Therefore, in the months to come an increasingly frequent topic of the meetings was the question of infrastructure for the newly formed political parties. At the April 19 Politburo meeting, Rezső Nyers characterized this new item on the agenda as a potential tool for building confidence: “Now, we should offer them something. What can we offer to them? Here we have to reckon with the parties again [that is, the historical parties - M.K.], well, we have to give them something for their infrastructure anyway. I consider it to be a good tool we have up our sleeves, and the earlier we give it to them, the more we can profit from it. And it will build some confidence too.”
The bilateral exploratory talks concerning a coalition were negatively influenced not only by the opposition alliance, but also by the fact that in the spring, the party began to break into smaller or larger platforms. It was a serious political trauma for the MSZMP leaders that while the opposition was only willing to negotiate within the frameworks that they themselves had set, the reform circles of the party had their first conference in the middle of April in Kecskemét, where the differences of opinion within the party were openly discussed. This swept the MSZMP inevitably towards an extraordinary party congress, and eventually to the break-up of the party. Henceforth, the attention of the party leadership was so much engaged by its internal problems - and the fear that the previously planned long-lasting transition could only be accomplished by keeping the party together by any means - that items dealing with internal matters of the party dominated the agenda of the meetings of various leading bodies, and the issues concerning the opposition were generally discussed at the end of these meetings, among the last, miscellaneous items taken up late at night.
At the beginning of 1989, the majority of the party leadership believed or hoped that the OR, consisting as it did of different parties and proto-parties, would prove to be a transitional, short-lived alliance which might fall apart as the result of unbridgeable internal conflicts without any outside intervention. The information received by the leadership of the MSZMP - the source of which was not identified in the minutes of the meetings - implied that the FYD, and especially the radical wing of the AFD (Alliance of Free Democrats) had full control over those OR member organizations who wanted to break free of this situation, which had been a burden upon them from the beginning. When characterizing the situation at the April 19, 1989 meeting of the Politburo, György Fejti said the following about the OR:
What MSZMP underestimated, however, was not only the cohesive power of the opposition but also the potential independent political role of the OR organizations in the first phase of the planned long-lasting transition. The MSZMP leaders viewed these organizations as still rather weak, lacking a realistic government program both currently and in the short-term future, and having even less practice in running a government. Thus, if the party had enough time, using its own political experience it could stay on its feet in the race against the opposition. So the main factor for MSZMP in 1989 was time - that is, the question of whether it could keep the economic crisis and the controlled political transition in the desired channels, because if it could not, then a too-rapid transition and radical changes in political and social conditions might destabilize the country and, in the worst case - as the most pessimistic Soviet scenarios had predicted - might also sweep off the party as a whole.
In the spring of 1989, however, the leaders of the MSZMP still hoped that the transition would be comfortably long and the negotiations with the opposition short (to be concluded by the end of May). The government would then submit slightly modified bills and everything would nicely follow its own course. This hope of the MSZMP was supported by their belief that their position for a possible compromise looked much more favorable and promising than that in Poland, because in Hungary, it was political parties who were sitting at the negotiating table, and they thought the agreements achieved with these parties would not bind them to do anything. At the April 19, 1989 meeting of the Politburo, Imre Pozsgay stressed that it was important to call this to the attention of opposition members unwilling to negotiate.
A stalemate situation
The first time the reality of the “flash-talks” concept was questioned was in April and May, when it turned out that both the MSZMP and the OR insisted on their own negotiating strategy. The OR continued to urge for bilateral negotiations and only wanted to discuss the issues and conditions related to the constitutional transition leading to democratic elections. Instead of the party bill, they wanted to discuss the amendments necessary for the law of public meeting and assembly, the issues related to equal opportunity in the media, and the guarantees against restoration by force. In the meantime, the MSZMP still had not given up the idea of arranging for a representative form of negotiations, and still insisted that in addition to the party bill and the electoral bill, economic and social issues should also be included in the agenda of the discussions. Most of all, they insisted that the institution of the presidency and the Constitutional Court be accepted within the framework of the constitutional modifications of which issues none of the organizations in the OR was willing to negotiate.
Thus, with each side sticking rigidly to its own position, by the end of April or by the beginning of May there was a stalemate situation. Even worse for MSZMP was the fact that the OR used the press to publicize its position, in which it openly questioned the legislative legitimacy of the parliament.
The MSZMP was understandably embarrassed by this war in the media, and would have preferred to continue the political reconciliation of interests in the less sensational arena of the negotiating table. At the April 19 and the May 2, 1989 Politburo meetings, the leadership of the party - now apparently accepting that it had to face a well-organized and difficult negotiating partner - deliberated whether it would be possible to find some flexible negotiating tactics that would enable them to continue open talks with the opposition that would not simply be informal meetings but would ultimately represent a national consensus. The MSZMP was all the more interested in such a scenario because it was trying to avoid any responsibility for either interrupting the negotiations that had recently started, or for being the cause of its eventual failure. Such accusations would jeopardize the MSZMP’s role as the initiator, which it considered to be one of the preconditions of a successful transition. The party was also afraid that the OR would view its own position in a much better light than what the Polish opposition had been able to achieve, and would perhaps deliberately play for time, or - as some part of the party leadership suggested - they would be destructive. At the April 19, 1989 Politburo meeting, György Fejti’s comments on the prospects for the negotiations reflected this assumption, saying that some within the OR believed that the talks were more urgent for MSZMP than for them:
Taking everything into consideration, Mátyás Szűrös suggested that they should no longer be engaged in trying to loosen up the OR but they should raise the level of the negotiations and continue them at the highest level of leadership, which incidentally was one of the OR’s ambitions as well. In order to move out of this deadlock, they went through one by one all the issues which were blocking the start of negotiations, and they came to the conclusion that the preparatory phase should be finished and genuine talks should be started as soon as possible. To this effect, they decided that they would be flexible on most of the issues. However, the “form of the table” did not belong here. Although the MSZMP was already willing to make concessions with regard to the representative forum they preferred, it would by no means agree to bilateral negotiations, in which the MSZMP would be on one side and all the organizations of the OR on the other.
At the beginning of May, the MSZMP and the OR organizations, and their respective representatives, conducted bilateral talks nearly every day in order to resolve the situation. According to the documents of the MSZMP leading bodies, certain representatives of the historical parties themselves initiated these meetings, proposing tri- and quadrilateral negotiations to be conducted between the MSZMP and the historical parties. For the MSZMP, however, the main goal of the background bilateral talks was to inspire the historical parties, and later the HDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) as well, via their representatives to make joint efforts to move the preparatory talks out of this deadlock situation. The MSZMP was still convinced that the OR was controlled by the most radical party, the AFD, and the unbendable resistance of the Free Democrats jeopardized not only the success of the preparatory phase but the series of negotiations as a whole, and thus, in the long run, the much-desired social consensus. Therefore, at the beginning of May, they first requested the negotiating partners to help the OR guide its way back towards the direction of compromise and consensus, but then later, in the middle of May, when the MSZMP took up intensive bilateral negotiations again, they expected their negotiating partners - especially the social democrats, but also the People’s Party, the Smallholders’ Party, and the Hungarian Democratic Forum - to distance themselves from the AFD’s position and to come to the negotiating table as “sovereign partners.”
In characterizing the power relations established by May of 1989, Imre Pozsgay said that the MSZMP could still consider itself to be firmly in the saddle, while the opposition was not yet in the position to have such confidence.
During the forced break caused by the deadlock situation, the MSZMP tried, on the one hand, to discover what the negotiating partners expected from the transition and what their ambitions were for the negotiations, and on the other, upon weighing this information, the MSZMP also had to determine for itself what it wanted to achieve and what it expected in the new situation. The answer to the first question seemed to be much simpler: MSZMP knew that the parties and the organizations of the opposition wanted to get as many mandates as possible at the elections, so they would mostly be interested in the party bill, and within it the issue of political infrastructure, so that they could operate their organizations under reasonable conditions. The other important point in the negotiations for the OR would be the issue concerning the media, for the opposition obviously wanted as much publicity as possible.
As to the question of what the MSZMP wanted to achieve, at the May 2, 1989 Politburo meeting, György Fejti set down as a minimal program that in the course of the negotiations, the most important objective was to restore the shaken legitimacy of the parliament by broadening the social base of legislation. On the other hand, the opposition was expected to commit themselves not to stir up social tensions in return for the MSZMP’s guarantee that there would be no attempts at political restoration by force. Finally, as far as the elections were concerned, MSZMP expected that after the general elections, a government based on a broad consensus could be formed with those who would be willing to enter into coalition.
At this time, the leadership of the party - in the interest of making use of its still-existing slim advantage - was already willing to accelerate the pace of the transition, contrary to its intentions at the beginning of the year, and to consider the possibility of advanced elections. In this context - considering the pros and cons for the upcoming elections and for cooperation with potential partners - the MSZMP came to an important conclusion which determined the fate of the transition in a fundamental way: notwithstanding the Polish example, it accepted the idea of competitive elections.
Although MSZMP had already previously declared its endorsement of the idea of free elections, the interpretation of this idea had changed in a matter of merely two months. In March, this still meant that quasi-free elections based on preliminary coalition agreements would take place, while in May, this already meant genuinely free elections based on the free competition of the parties involved. This was first stated by Rezső Nyers at the May 2, 1989 Politburo meeting:
At the May 8, 1989 MSZMP CC meeting, during discussion of the party bill, the issue of the electoral bill under preparation was raised. Some members mentioned the possibility that the MSZMP might still follow the Polish example and try to make a preliminary coalition agreement with the opposition. György Fejti, however, who was the political official in charge of the bills in the highest party leadership - and thus participated in the preparation of these bills himself - did not forget his earlier worries concerning the Polish solution. Therefore he plainly objected to this idea:
Upon seeing the pressure of the current circumstances and, as a result of this, the changes in the MSZMP’s conception of the transition, some members of the CC now began to talk about the escalation of demands. Thus, the chance of implementing a transition initiated and controlled by the party was further diminished.
The parliamentary palette
The exploratory talks concerning a coalition remained on the agenda, however, in spite of the fact that by May it was quite clear to the MSZMP that in any event, the parties composing the OR were eager to be weighed in the balance at competitive elections and that therefore they were not interested in any coalition - neither among themselves, nor least of all with the MSZMP. At the May 2 Politburo meeting, György Fejti informed the members that the lesson learned from the bilateral negotiations was that a coalition agreement with the historical parties was only viable after the elections:
The leadership of the party believed the party’s electoral target should be 40-45 percent of the vote, which would be enough later for a coalition agreement. Meanwhile, after assessing the real power relations and the possible consequences of a competitive election, its views concerning potential coalition partners underwent significant modification. A few in the party had some concern regarding the priority given to the historical parties in this respect. György Fejti voiced the objection that as a result of internal conflicts, these parties were often represented by people who were rivals within their party, so it was hard to know whether they were supported by the party’s leadership. He called the attention of the meeting to the contradiction that it was the Alliance of Free Democrats who had the most resolute ideas concerning the negotiations, and therefore it was they who controlled the Opposition Roundtable. Miklós Németh, however, feared that these selective negotiations might prove to be a trap for MSZMP, for if the OR learned of such background talks, it would mean losing the chance for the broad national negotiations then just under preparation.
Imre Pozsgay - summarizing the conceptual turn concerning potential coalitions- described what the MSZMP considered the desirable composition of the parliament. He believed that instead of striving for coalition with the historical parties, which were struggling with constant internal conflicts, the MSZMP should seek coalition with the social democrats, while with respect to the HDF, some kind of - not yet precisely defined - tolerance was needed, and as far as the AFD was concerned - in Pozsgay’s view - they would be a constructive opposition.
Agreement on starting the negotiations
By the end of May 1989, the MSZMP considered the stalemate situation to be very serious. The announcements made by the OR demonstrated that the legitimacy of the parliament could hardly be maintained until the next elections, and as a result, the MSZMP decided that an advanced election was now a necessity. This, however, was not feasible without a prior agreement with the opposition parties.
The concerns of the MSZMP were further enhanced by the fact that the June 16 re-burial of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs was now quite near. The Committee for Historical Justice and the family of Imre Nagy changed their earlier position: they were not content with having a ceremony in the cemetery, but also requested that they be laid in state at Heroes’ Square. In anticipation of these events, the MSZMP suggested to the government that they should issue a statement - obviously in addition to the necessary steps to be taken by the Ministry of the Interior - to call upon the society for national reconciliation. The leadership of the party could see, however, that this might not be enough to ease the tension in the country, so it wanted above all to start the negotiations with the opposition in the first half of June. Time was not on the MSZMP’s side.
They were able to break out of deadlock when at the May 26, 1989 Politburo meeting, György Fejti came forward with a proposal entirely different from their earlier position as far as the most important issue, the one concerning the form of the negotiations, was concerned. The secretary of the CC, who was playing a leading role in the preliminary harmonizing talks, proposed “trilateral plus one” negotiations, with the MSZMP and OR complemented by “independent participants,” and as the fourth side, by observers.
“A triangle, an isosceles - I can already see the table” - said Fejti. His second proposal was that in any event they should raise the level of the negotiations: they should appoint members of the negotiating delegation, in which experts of the MSZMP and the government would participate. The delegations, continued the secretary of the CC, would be headed by Imre Pozsgay and Rezső Nyers, but the participation of Károly Grósz might perhaps be reserved for the plenary sessions, so that in case of a failure, the presence of the secretary general would not prove to be a trap for the MSZMP. “Another thing we have to consider is whether comrade Grósz should also be involved in this. There are arguments for and against it, for if a failure should come, here I am to take it, I don’t think the secretary general should assume this responsibility.” The other members of the body also agreed with this basic principle, so they decided that - although the presence of the secretary general was indispensable for raising the level and stakes of the negotiations - he himself should only appear at the opening session, and then later when agreement had been reached. In the words of Rezső Nyers: “If eventually there is a chance for an agreement, you will be there, but until there is one, you should not be there.”
At the May 26 Politburo meeting, György Fejti also said that they should call the attention of the opposition to an important provision: the MSZMP’s offer was only valid until the end of the first week of June. If real negotiations failed to begin in the first two weeks, the proposal would become meaningless. And in this case, in order to guard against the loss of prestige, MSZMP would evaluate another possibility, of “smaller value politically”: the proposal that the government should make public all fundamental laws - several of which had already made public - and guarantee that the comments made by the various organizations, either separately or as part of the proposal made by the Opposition Roundtable, would be submitted to parliament.
The Politburo accepted this new approach to the negotiations, but it was also afraid that if the MSZMP’s new proposal concerning the trilateral negotiations, which might also be acceptable to the OR, was made public, it would “depreciate” Károly Grósz’s upcoming talks with the three historical parties: the social democrats, the Smallholders’ Party, and the People’s Party. Yet the MSZMP still viewed negotiations concerning long term coalition plans as a strategic goal of primary importance. All the more so because they hoped by keeping in constant contact with these parties, they might perhaps be able to detach them - and perhaps the HDF as well - from the OR, which was conducting a rather unbendable policy as an opposition alliance. Therefore - with a view to the special interests of the bilateral talks - the Politburo decided that the new proposal for negotiations would be sent to the OR only when these inter-party meetings, conducted with the participation of Grósz, had already taken place in the beginning of June. Above all, however, they wanted to conceal this tactic of playing for time from the CC, for they believed that everything leaked out from there, which was precisely what they did not want. In order to avoid this, they agreed that the CC would be given only the most necessary pieces of information: “Let us agree that we should not say anything concrete to the CC, even if they press us hard” - said Rezső Nyers, concluding the conspiracy.
As expected, the OR received the MSZMP’s new proposal favorably, and soon after, on June 9, 1989, the experts signed the agreement declaring the beginning of real negotiations, to be followed on June 10 by the members of the negotiating delegations. As it later turned out, however, the June agreement had one weak point from the MSZMP’s perspective: while it promised that legislation would not precede the political agreements, it failed to determine the endpoint for the negotiations. This “mistake” got MSZMP involved in an undesired, long-lasting process of negotiations in which it had to make unforeseen compromises. It was precisely this promise that the MSZMP would later want to retract over the course of the negotiations.
By the middle of the summer of 1989, the chances for the MSZMP in the upcoming elections had deteriorated dramatically. One clear warning sign was the outcome of the June Polish elections, in which the PUWP performed worse than expected. One month later, in July 1989, mid-term elections were held in Hungary, and in the first round, the opposition candidates joined their forces and inflicted defeat upon the communist candidates.
In the meantime, not only did the unity of MSZMP fail to be restored, but the party instead became further differentiated. The 21 member Political Executive Committee (PEC), established as the successor of the Political Committee (Politburo) in June 1989, had no other choice but to put on the agenda of its July 24 meeting the discussion of various platforms and trends inside the party, for some of these had a direct bearing on the highest levels of the party. (The agenda of the meeting included among others the Movement for a Democratic Hungary, the Berecz, and the Ribánszky platforms.) This further increased the tension already present in the party leadership; the division among the four people in the newly established top level leading body, the Presidency - Rezső Nyers, Károly Grósz, Imre Pozsgay, and Miklós Németh - was now clearly irreversible. Another factor deepening the crisis of the MSZMP was that, as a result of the parliament’s shaken legitimacy, certain groups of representatives in the House, especially the county party leaders, were threatening to call for the House’s dissolution. All this encouraged the MSZMP to take a very firm position on the issue of advanced elections. The government, as well as the Prime Minister Miklós Németh himself, wholeheartedly supported the idea of advanced elections, for they believed that some unpopular measures were indispensable for the stabilization of the economy and for acquiring new loans from the West, but they wanted to introduce these measures only after the elections.
In assessing this domestic situation, the members of the PEC agreed that the elections should be held as soon as possible. This, however, caused an abrupt turn in their position concerning their negotiating strategy. Now, the MSZMP wanted to speed up the negotiations, but this time it was not because it underestimated the strength of the opposition - as they had earlier - but rather because they wanted to hold the elections as early as 1989. Chances were rather slim in this respect, however. The elections could not be held in November even if the negotiations were completed within a month and the Party submitted to the House the laws it considered fundamental: the party bill, the electoral bill, the bill on the institution of the presidency, and as a maximal program, the bill on the Constitutional Court. Nonetheless, the members of the PEC believed that, in the hope of having the elections in December, the negotiating process should be speeded up by all possible means, and the opposition should be informed that the government’s friendly gesture of withdrawing the fundamental laws from Parliament in June did not mean that the negotiations could go on indefinitely. This is because the MSZMP was convinced that the OR wanted to delay agreement and was demonstrating “obstructive behavior” in order to hinder the advanced elections, as it knew that these was mostly in the interests of the MSZMP.
György Fejti, who primarily acted as the executor of political decisions, as well as - in the absence of Imre Pozsgay at that time - the leader of the MSZMP negotiating delegation, said at the June 24 meeting of the PEC that the most important task facing the leadership was to decide finally what it really wants to achieve, because the negotiating delegation would then shape its tactics accordingly. If the PEC opted for advanced elections, it would clearly mean having to accelerate the negotiations. And in this case, there was no other solution: even if it meant risking failure at the talks, any disputed item upon which agreement could not be expected - in the first place giving an account on the MSZMP’s property - would have to be removed from the issues to be discussed, because these could not only slow down the process towards an agreement but might also hinder it.
Nonetheless, the Political Executive Committee did not decide when the elections would take place, because both the end of that year and the beginning of the next year seemed equally suitable. The speaker of the House had some objections to a later, March deadline as well, asking why the parliament should demonstrate its incapacity by admitting that it could not last for another three months until the next elections when it had been able to survive thus far. Therefore, the PEC left the issue of the date of the elections open, agreeing that a proposal would be made later, depending on how the parliament was able to function. The negotiating delegations were given the clear task of speeding up the process of the trilateral talks, however, and doing whatever they could in order to ensure the political and legal conditions necessary for advanced elections. To this effect, they were to urge the development of the party and electoral bills, as well as the preparation of the bill for the institution of the presidency, so that the parliament could debate them as soon as possible.
Two days after the meeting of the Political Executive Committee, on July 26, 1989, the MSZMP delegation informed the negotiating partners in a statement that it was not willing to discuss the issue of the MSZMP’s property in the framework of trilateral “reconciliation of interests.” Following this, the professional harmonizing talks in Committee I/2 was broken off, to be resumed on the intermediate level only on August 24.
The interpretation of consensus
On August 15, the PEC convened for a meeting before resuming the trilateral political talks on August 24. According to the previous common practice, the issue of these talks was placed on the agenda under the rubric “miscellaneous” for discussion late in the evening. This order was changed by the unexpected demand of Gyula Horn. Horn said that while the body was discussing unimportant issues, life was “whizzing” past it. This was how the issue became included in the agenda as its first item, under the label of “current issues of domestic policy.” Nonetheless, by then the outcome of the negotiations was indeed very important for the MSZMP, for it still cherished some hopes concerning the advanced elections. The best solution would be to have the parliament debate those bills which the MSZMP considered to be fundamental at the end of September or the beginning of October at the latest, so that the elections could be held at the beginning of December, inasmuch as the electoral law under preparation provided that elections had to be declared within 60 days. The most important condition for elections in December, however, was the rather optimistic schedule of events outlined by the MSZMP back in the middle of August with respect to the negotiations. According to this schedule, after August 21 the negotiating partners would hold some preparatory expert talks, then on August 24, a medium-level meeting would be held, and then on August 26, the negotiations would be concluded. Even in György Fejti’s most pessimistic estimate, another meeting could be held on August 25, if needed - and he believed it would be necessary - and then on September 1, the Central Committee could review the outcome of the negotiations and the agreement could be signed on September 2.
The most important obstacle in the way of implementing this schedule was exactly the same thing that it had been since the signing of the June 10 agreement: the agreement did not set a deadline for the end of the negotiations, and it also failed to state clearly that all three negotiating partners must come to agreement on all fundamental issues before signing the concluding statement. Now it was evident for the MSZMP that the AFD and the FYD were not willing to come to any compromise on the most hotly debated issues: the issue of party property, the legitimacy of party organizations at the workplace, and the institution of the presidency. Therefore, in August the PEC tried to find a way to cut the negotiations short and to revise the most important element of the agreement made in June, the one guaranteeing that legislation would not precede the political agreement.
One possible solution proposed for interpreting the consensus needed to conclude the agreement was that those bills upon which agreement had already been achieved should be submitted to the parliament, while the rest of the issues would be further postponed. This was not too promising for the MSZMP, for after it passed the electoral law and the party law, the OR had no longer any interest in speedily accepting the law on the institution of the presidency. The MSZPM’s leaders, however, regarded the introduction of the presidency - even with the president having “medium” powers only - a crucial issue in the process of transition. Therefore they were hoping up to the end of the roundtable talks that as a result of conducting successful behind-the-scenes talks with some of the OR’s organizations not only the institution of presidency would be accepted but also that the MSZMP’s nominee, Imre Pozsgay would be elected president.
The second proposal was that those bills which had been accepted by all the three sides would be submitted to the House as draft text , while for the rest of the issues, alternative texts would be distributed among the representatives of the House, indicating which version was proposed by the MSZMP. As a sub-alternative to this proposal, Rezső Nyers suggested that it would be good to come to agreement on the party bill, the electoral bill, and in the optimal case, the bill on the institute of the presidency, but if this did not succeed, then the MSZMP would submit the latter one “out of its position of strength.”
In the meantime, a “quiet diplomacy” was going on behind the scenes, not only with the parties of the OR but also with the representatives of the Third Side. Nonetheless, while in the spring the MSZMP had wanted to persuade the participating parties of the OR to try to soften up the other OR organizations, so that they would be willing to sit down at the negotiating table, this time the main goal of the background talks was to facilitate the conclusion of the trilateral negotiations as soon as possible. This had to be done in a way that would achieve agreement on the issue of the institution of the presidency, in addition to the two fundamental laws. This former issue would have to be removed from the rest of the constitutional issues in order to hold the presidential and general elections as early as December 1989 - if possible, in this order, but in the worst case both at the same time. Summarizing the lessons of the background talks, the MSZMP did not exclude the possibility that in case agreement with the OR as a united negotiating partner failed, then it would try to talk some of the participating organizations into making separate agreements. Reporting on these exploratory talks at the August 15 PEC meeting, György Fejti said that the MSZMP was “quite close” to making an agreement with three organizations: the Hungarian Democratic Forum, the Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Friendship Society, and the Christian Democratic Party. Fejti argued as follows:
György Fejti believed that if despite patient, quiet diplomacy, the party failed to come to an agreement - because the AFD and the FYD stuck with their intentions to obstruct the submission of the bills - then the MSZMP should try to reach an agreement with only some of the negotiating partners: with the above-mentioned three organizations and with the Third Side, whose members, reported the secretary of the CC, were also conducting separate talks with the MSZMP. As for the People’s Party, György Fejti said that because they were currently hesitating, they would change sides: “[If] we can come to an agreement with the Hungarian Democratic Forum, then the People’s Party will surely change sides, and perhaps the Smallholders’ Party will too.”
A long ending, special bargains
Despite the planned schedule and quiet diplomacy, the negotiations did not come to an end by August 26. Moreover, eleven more medium-level political meetings began on August 24. The MSZMP could exhibit the greatest flexibility in discussing the electoral bill, partly because after the mid-term elections, it also changed its view on a fundamental issue concerning the electoral system: the ratio of individual and list mandates. One success it could record was that according to the agreement, not only those who received the most votes could run in the second round - as proposed by the OR - but all those who received 15% of the vote.
The negotiating partners also managed to reach an agreement on the basic principles of the party law, after the OR abandoned its original proposal that there was no need for a separate party law, but rather for the amendment of the law of assembly. Still, the most serious internal conflict that MSZMP had to face over the course of the negotiations was related to the party law, when at the August 28 trilateral meeting, Imre Pozsgay promised - without any prior consent - that the party would leave the workplace. Even the members of the Central Committee and those members of the party who were not aware of any inside information were frightened by this possibility, and, more generally, by seeing how much was at stake in the negotiations. They believed that they no longer exercised any influence over the course of events, and many thought that the negotiating delegation, and especially Imre Pozsgay, enjoyed too much power. Moreover, at the August 31 special meeting of the Political Executive Committee, some of them accused Imre Pozsgay of making unfavorable deals in return for the position of the president, given that earlier they had agreed not to make concessions concerning the fundamental issues. That is, they refused to account for party properties or to leave the workplace, and the position of the president was indispensably necessary.
The negotiations, which the MSZMP regarded as long and drawn-out, finished on September 18, 1989, and proved to be a partial failure as far as the most important political issue was concerned - the institution of the presidency - due to the unbendable attitude of the AFD and the FYD. Nor could the opposition feel fully content with the results, for the MSZMP did not commit itself to dissolving the worker’s militia, and it withdrew its promise to leave the workplace. The most important deficiency of these negotiations on the political transition was that no satisfactory solution was found, either in the course of negotiations or later, concerning the accountability of the party and of the other former social organizations for their properties.
At the same time both - or, better to say - all three sides put great effort, serious resolve, and serious expert work into this enterprise, and often demonstrated admirable self-restraint and tolerance. As a result of this, the most important goal, that of the peaceful transition of the system, could still be implemented. This was done with less success than expected for the MSZMP, however, and with more success - at least in the short run - for the opposition.
At the beginning of the summer of 1989, the leadership of the MSZMP still entertained some hopes that they could escape the general political, economic, and moral crisis by a change of model, which essentially meant reforming the earlier system and a quasi-division of power. At the June 23, 1989 Central Committee meeting, Prime Minister Miklós Németh was still trying to convince himself and the members of the CC that a change of model was needed in order to avoid a political transition - a demand which at that time was attributed only to the most radical opposition. It was also he who believed, even at the beginning of September, that what the Polish lesson demonstrated was that there was no way of establishing a viable government or a viable coalition without the participation of the communist party.
In reality, however, it was not possible to implement the optimistic scenario predicted by the Soviets. In this sense, the “scenario” would have meant what it usually does: a series of actions to be carried out, a series of stories to be represented. Instead, the “pessimistic version” was implemented, which could only register in advance a series of inevitable events. Although at all times the MSZMP attempted to maintain its role as leader and initiator - or at least to keep up this appearance - it was forced to make constant concessions, partly due to internal division, partly as a result of assessing the real processes in the country, and partly because of the unexpectedly rapid organization of the opposition and their persistent negotiating attitude. These concessions went long beyond the change in model that was so strongly desired by the party even at the time of the negotiations. And by the time the negotiations had come to an end, the socialist system had peacefully passed away, and another one stepped into place.