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Between Past and Future

Sorin Antohi

III. Vulnerabilities of the New Democracies

14. The Handshake Tradition: A Decade of Consensus Politics Bears Liberal Fruit in Hungary—But What Next?

Miklós Haraszti

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1These days, I am often asked: Does Hungarian democracy resemble the system I imagined ten years ago? And then comes the logical second question: Do I like what it turned out to be?

2My answer is a quite resolute, double yes—as far as the ten years up to now are concerned. Hungary’s democracy certainly resembles the desired boredom of normalcy I had predicted in my more optimistic moods. And I have liked, throughout this decade’s mess and confusion, one consistent quality in our public life: the flavor of a consensus-seeking democracy—the first, by the way, in Hungarian history.

3I call this system of consensus-based democracy the “handshake tradition”. It stemmed from the actual handshake, the contractual democratization of 1989 and 1990, but it was strengthened throughout the decade by its institutionalization. I believe that our transformation has been a success thanks to this enduring self-limitation of the country’s political forces.

4Unfortunately, however, I feel that this success, and the handshake tradition as a whole, is now endangered. I will here describe both the success of the “handshake” process over the past decade as well as my reasons for concern as I look ahead.

5The Hungarian system over the last decade came as close as possible to the Lijphartian ideal of a consensus-seeking, pluralistic democracy. In reality, of course, it was a mixed system just a bit richer in pluralistic features than average alongside the majoritarian ones. It is sufficient to remove one or two basic antimajoritarian institutions of the system in order to retransform any advanced Central European liberal democracy into an ordinary jacobinist-to-mafioso East European nightmare.

6Ten years after 1989, Hungary’s third freely elected government obviously nurtures a vision of a “Westminsterian”, majoritist polity and quite systematically seeks to eliminate obstacles to what its leaders call “a more resolute enforcement of the majority principle”. Is this sudden change simply politics as usual, within the limits of the infinite trans-formability typical of democracy, or is it something intrinsic to post-communism’s problem of quality?

7I tend to believe it is precisely here that lies the point of no return toward illiberal, purely technical, authoritarian democracy. My final thesis will be that in postcommunism, only consensus-based—as opposed to majoritarian—politics can produce a western quality, liberal democracy.

A Contract of Self-Limitation

8Self-limitation has not always been a virtue, of course. At first it was constructed as such by the outer limitations of cruel history, starting with Hungary’s 1956 classic but failed revolution. The events of 1956 proved that the communist party could not be defeated; the fate of Prague Spring in 1968 showed it could not be reformed. Thus the solution offered by Adam Michnik and our Polish friends in 1976—a self-defending civil evolutionism circumventing the party—developed into the concept of a self-limiting civic revolution.

9By the time—in the late eighties—our generation of dissidents moved to establish parties and was driven into normal politics, we all had become perfect self-limiters. (That’s how I voluntarily lost my personal freedom of expression by switching genres from essays to slogans, such as “Kádár must go!”) Along with our Polish and Czechoslovak friends, our movement aimed at a nonrevolutionary revolution, the radicality of which expressed itself only as a consistent constitutional legalism.

10We worked for a contractual transition, a shaking of hands rather than a coming to blows, in bittersweet anticipation of what Herbert Marcuse in the sixties pessimistically called a “one-dimensional society” and what Francis Fukuyama decades later rejoicingly called the “end of history”.

11Our revolution reminded me of a classic joke told all over the former Soviet bloc: “What’s the dictatorship of the proletariat?” The answer: “It’s self-control of the working classes”. Jokes aside, the self-limiting, anti-evolutionary character of our revolution evolved into a democratic quality that this region never before had experienced.

12Both the favorable and the damnable qualities of our “handshake tradition” were obvious in advance. A negotiated, peaceful democratization is clearly the best start for truly liberal change that seeks to avoid the predictable wave of revenge in the aftermath of its victory. It is also the worst start for revolutionary change that aims to eliminate former elites.

13Following the handshake, ninety-five percent of the electorate— representing all parties except for the hard-line former communists— supported change in our March 1990 parliamentary elections, the first truly free postcommunist vote after the semi-free but path-breaking Polish one. Obviously, even the old guard decided it was time to embark on something new. In the nick of time, they became as sincerely devoted to civic rights as were the veterans of democracy. On the other hand, within the chrysalis of its own defeat, the communist nomenklatura prepared for the happiest period of its life: its re-emergence as the new bourgeoisie.

14It has to be noted that in Hungary the contractual way of democratization consisted of two steps. Half of the job was done in 1989 at the round table between the communists and the united opposition. The other half came in 1990 with the results of the first elections, involving the victorious conservatives and the opposition liberals. The final product of these two compromises—the first, between old and new, and the second, across the democratic spectrum—was a fully reconstructed constitution, enacted in 1990 and brought to compliance with the strictest requirements of western polity, including separation of branches of power, checks and balances.

15In prescribing numerous two-thirds laws, the amended constitution ruled that mutual understanding should exist between the majority and the opposition when important decisions are made. At the same time, it carefully arranged the governability of the country.

16Neither the nomenklatura nor any party could have accomplished on their own what these agreements concerning free elections and constitutional reform have achieved. In retrospect, the blessings of the “handshake transition” still dominate our democracy. The postcommunist decade has been more successful in every respect than it should have been purely on the basis of its prehistory, players, old and new institutions, and economic constraints.

Hungary Ahead of Itself

17Thanks to its contractual origins, Hungary’s postcommunist democracy is quite ahead of our own postcommunist society.

18Most remarkably, ours is a firmly liberal system. Freedoms are more functionally anchored in the founding handshakes and in the established legal system than in the active concerns of our citizens. The press in Hungary is freer now than the journalists are; capitalism is deeper than its popular legitimacy; rights are more elaborate than tolerance of them.

19The system continued to develop in a liberal direction under two consecutive partisan administrations. Each, however, accused the other of restricting democratic rights, a reproach that distinguishes postcommunist democracies from more established ones. Nevertheless, under both the conservative coalition of József Antall and the socialist-liberal coalition of Gyula Horn, rights and freedoms have further solidified and grown.

20Just as in the case of the U.S. Constitution, many important features have been built into the system, relying on the design of the founders. A replica of the U.S. First Amendment, declaring that freedom of expression is more important than other liberties, was the result of the famous media war of the early 1990s, a feud over the public broadcasting system. Hungary now has patients’ rights, partnership rights for homosexuals, laws against marital violence, government obligations for the disabled, and laws protecting privacy and providing access to public information.

21Many of these tasks have been accomplished by Hungary’s Constitutional Court. The court is a typical product of the handshake, originally empowered to assure the communists that no retroactive legislation would follow after they succumbed to elections. And there have been some useful fears on the other side; too, concerning how strong the democratic sentiments of the former communists would be in case of electoral victory. The court also has become the guarantor of the survival of the handshake due to its membership selection rule, which ensures a near-total consensus among the parties represented in Parliament in the choice of new justices.

22As a bridge between the fictitious constitutionalism of the communist regime and the democratic rule of law, the court has taken Hungary quite far into the future. It is more “activist” in its scope of intervention than any similar western model. It relies on an “invisible constitution” along with the written one, embodied in its own rulings. That invisible law is unmistakably the liberal spirit of the handshake.

23The Constitutional Court has protected former secret police agents from public identification, as well as the rights of their victims to look into their own files. It has helped to guard the sanctity of private property, and, by the same token, it has saved the nomenklatura-bourgeoisie from the confiscation of what it acquired during history’s most uncontrolled management buyout in the late 1980s. It has given the green light to market capitalism and protected social rights during Hungary’s belated shock therapy in the mid-1990s.

The Place Where World Wars Started

24There are two miraculous achievements of which Hungary obviously would not have been capable without consensus politics. One is the stabilization of the economy, the other its foreign policies.

25For a long time, western observers discussed whether postcommunist economies needed shock therapy or gradual transformation. But the successful reform countries decided that dispute for them. For years they went against political logic, and with heavy restrictions and a severe decline in the incomes of the larger part of their electorates, they transformed their command systems into privatized, demonopolized, globalized economies. The speediness of stabilization—that is, it’s “cruelty”— turned out to be a socially responsible answer. If it had not happened relatively quickly, the state would have become empty handed anyway, and chaos would have taken over.

26But Hungary’s example proves that taking swift action is not the only precondition of success. After all, quite a few countries experimented with shock therapy and failed. Equally important, success depends upon the compromises of the political class, its factions mutually depriving themselves of their favorite trump cards: the living standards card; the unemployment card; the nomenklatura-turned-comprador, bourgeois-selling-out-the-country card. Can the political class become almost an-tipolitical? Only through consensus politics can this come to pass.

27Another miracle of the spirit of 1989 is that the Hungarian political elite voluntarily disposed of its traditional weapon of ethnopatriotic agitation. Hungary offered “land for ethnic rights” treaties to its neighbors where ethnic Hungarians live on former Hungarian territories: Romania, Slovakia, and Ukraine. Times of austerity are not typical ones for cutting reconciliation deals in Europe. Yet the Hungarian liberal polity was strong enough to do so and provided replicas of earlier French-German and Austrian-Italian reconciliation treaties. Germany agonized for thirty years after World War II to reach a similar agreement with Poland over the Oder-Neisse border. Hungary accomplished this in the first five years of its democracy, notwithstanding the uproar of shock therapy at home.

28In the region where both world wars started, how could all this have happened without the handshake that committed all parties to western integration of the country and of the region? What nobody believed in 1989 has been proven: that the “masses” can understand and support rational policies, provided the political elites do the same.

29Also worth consideration is that this tenth year of democracy is the first year in which the country has experienced modestly rising living standards after fifteen consecutive years of falling real incomes. Without the liberal and somewhat elitist design of the handshake tradition, it would have been impossible to maneuver any democracy through a total reorganization of life—one that is actually ending up in dramatically growing class differences. With few exceptions, it is the poor of communism who have become even poorer and the powerful of the ancien régime that have become the new upper class. Capitalism thus far has not delivered much on its promises of a market-based social counterbalance and of the rise of a self-made middle class. Add to this injustice the future shock of one-tenth of society’s newly unemployed.

30For this kind of miraculous social peace to come about you would need either—as in the case of West and East Germany—a powerful and democratic “Western Hungary” or “Western Poland”, ready to offer a Wessie constitutional dictatorship over the Ossie part of the reuniting country. Or you need the handshake. Without one or the other you only can have combinations of prefascist, Weimarian, precommunist, Lublin features of weakness: competing and conspiring brown and red majoritarian claims and a self-annihilating democracy.

31Whose endurance should be praised more during this decade of the handshake? That of the people of Hungary, who in spite of evident social injustice have renewed at every vote their confidence in the system’s declared direction—the western shore? Or the commitment of the political class to the original liberal design? I personally cannot imagine any western democracy where fifteen consecutive years of falling living standards would not have prompted a mutiny of populist sentiments or the rise of extremist political adventurers—or both. There has been nothing like that in Hungary, where the political class enjoys a surprising lack of competition from outside the original handshake club.

An End to Consensus?

32At the same time, the basic tensions of this liberal Hungarian transition also have derived from the handshake. Suddenly, for the first time during this transition, it is the third government, that of Viktor Orbán, which has decided to ride class sentiments, play majoritarian rather than consensus-based governance, and build a political constituency based upon a “them or us” theme.

33Naturally Orbán, himself a long-time beneficiary of the healthy constraints of our historic handshake, would not even be able to experiment with ignoring them without the success of the economic and legal transformation, nor, of course, without the inequities and injustices preserved rather than created by the transition. Those, too, have been part of this peaceful, contractual shift from oppression to freedom.

34It remains to be seen whether Orbán has purely political reasons in doing so—namely, to unite a broad right wing party in the hope of forging a two-party system—or if this is simply the style of a strong political personality who thrives on conflict. The broader question with which we are presented is whether or not postcommunist democracies can remain liberal ones without cultivating their consensus elements.

35An empirical answer is provided by Hungary’s new administration. Since the summer of 1998, when it officially opted for a majoritarian model, hardly any of the liberal features of our system have remained untouched.

36Executive power and even the volume of actual state property started to grow. A more or less open war has been declared against any and all autonomous or self-governing social services and public and civil institutions, whether created by the spirit of consensus or antimajoritarian by the book: the controlling function of Parliament, the prosecution system, social security, the judiciary, trade unions, trade chambers, endowments of artists, the press—be it publicly or privately owned—and even soccer alliances. “Opposition” municipalities feel punished by resource-allocation mechanisms. Rights of the individual are reported by ombud-speople, victimized by the authorities’ majoritarian moves. These include the illegitimate joining of databanks, condemnation of nontraditional churches, and a mad aggravation of the penal code—all features which were previously thought to be “eastern” in our liberal democracy.

37Typically, it is the two-thirds laws that are at stake. Most features of the handshake have been secured by them. Neophyte majoritarianism consists of getting around them by applying fifty-one percent laws by fifty-one percent decisions and then heaping up the inertia of the system caused by an inevitably delayed correction of other branches of power.

38Here is one example of how this works. The house rules prescribe a weekly session, since in Hungary a continuously sitting parliament has become one of the symbols of the revolution of 1989. During the communist decades, there were only four parliamentary sessions per year, each lasting only a couple of days—not more than a week’s work altogether, in that gigantic building on the Danube, the biggest parliament in Europe after Westminster. In 1988, demonstrations forced the communist parliament to convene weekly and to televise its sessions. Recently, Prime Minister Orbán decided that it is sufficient to let the opposition show off only once every three weeks. But to change the house rules, he needed the support of two thirds of Parliament; that is, the consensus of the opposition. He changed the rule nevertheless by deciding in a simple majority, linguistic vote that the word “weekly” in the house rules is not a normative on the frequency of sessions; it simply describes the duties of the House during the actual weeks it convenes.

39Can all this just be political style, and thus a viable alternative? I think not. Even a majoritarian-type western polity is based on the centuries-old skills of unwritten consensus. But postcommunist majoritarianism is not contented with a rearrangement of power in conformity with the rules of the game; it seeks to change the rules of the game as it goes. That could fill any country’s political life with poisonous disputes about the abuse of power, as, for example, in Slovakia under the regime of Vladimir Mečiar.

40But shouldn’t it be Slovakia’s experience precisely that fills us with optimism? Doesn’t Slovakia’s case prove that the liberal qualities of democratic foundations cannot be lost? The answer is dependent on how we assess the spectacular liberal breakthrough of the past decade.

41One possibility is that the “contractual state” has been Hungary’s very own way to liberal democracy. Although the founding fathers used western patterns, they did so by popular demand. The success of consensus politics—the handshake tradition—means that Eastern Europe is not only capable of liberal democracy but actually will recreate it despite any loss. Illiberal majoritism will prove to be a short interlude.

42The other, less optimistic scenario is that liberal democracy was a mirage of 1989, the illusion of the generation of founding fathers. Consensus was rather dictated by the mutual weaknesses of the parties involved. Constitutional self-restraint is a laboratory experiment, not viable in the longer run. In this case, it is Eastern European social reality itself that pulls Central European polity back after the decade of the handshake. Following this scenario, we will sink into the ocean of illiberal democracies east of Eden.

43Each should decide for oneself. We certainly are at the crossroads.

44One thing is sure: If the handshake tradition is lost, “Central” Europe loses its tiny edge over “Eastern” Europe. Claiming “a more resolute enforcement of the majority principle” is a bad pretext. This is not England; people still understand Russian here and know that “Bolshevik” meant an originally credible devotion to the majority principle. In 1933 and in 1948, this region “democratically” liquidated democracy. In several countries of the postcommunist region, it is a majoritarian, brownish, or reddish system that silences the press and the opposition.

45Therefore my conclusion: Under postcommunist circumstances, unlike in the more established western democracies, there is no “free choice” between consensus politics and its technically equivalent alternatives that theoretically also could be conducive to a liberal system. Here, democracy cannot be of a “western quality”—that is, liberal— without a rigorously fostered tradition of consensus.


Miklós Haraszti is a Budapest-based writer, editor, human rights activist, and university professor.

© Central European University Press, 2000

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