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Republic of Hungary

Republic of Hungary

Type of Government

Hungary is a parliamentary democracy with a legislative branch consisting of a single house, the 386-seat National Assembly, whose members are elected by the people. The National Assembly then elects the country’s two executives, a president who serves as the chief of state and a prime minister who is the head of the government. The National Assembly also elects the judges of the Constitutional Court.

Background

The history of Hungary begins in the winter of AD 895–896, when a tribe of horsemen known as the Magyars settled in the Carpathian Basin. (Hungary’s name in Hungarian, Magyarország, is taken from this tribe.) The Magyars conquered the earlier inhabitants of the area and launched raids as far away as France and Italy in search of settlements to plunder.

The Magyars’ raiding days came to an end in 955, when they were crushed by a German army at the Battle of Augsburg. The tribe, however, was left in possession of a considerable amount of territory. In addition to modern-day Hungary, the Magyars also ruled some or all of modern-day Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, Ukraine, and Romania. Under King Stephen I (977–1038), Hungary developed into a full-fledged feudal kingdom. Stephen adopted Christianity and ordered the people of his kingdom to do the same. He also established a feudal social order, with Magyar and foreign nobles ruling over a mix of Magyar, Romanian, and Slavic peasants.

Hungary ceased to be an independent kingdom in 1526, when its king died while fighting a Turkish army at the Battle of Mohács. Subsequently much of Hungary was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. The Hungarian lands that did not become part of the Ottoman Empire were absorbed into the territory of the Austrian Empire, which was ruled by the Habsburg family.

By 1697 the Habsburgs had driven the Turks out of Hungary and taken complete control of the country. The Hungarians chafed at being ruled by the Habsburgs, who kept a tight rein over activities in Hungary. Hungarian discontent broke out into a full-fledged revolution in 1848, but the Austrians, with help from Russian troops, defeated the Hungarians in 1849. For eighteen years after this defeat, the Habsburg rule was even harsher than before the revolution. Then, in 1867, the Austrian emperor, Francis Joseph (1830–1916) agreed to allow the Hungarians more autonomy. The Austrian Empire became the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Hungary was allowed to have its own parliament again.

Hungary entered World War I on the Austrian side in 1914, but when the war degenerated into a bloody stalemate the Hungarian people became restless. By 1917 there were massive demonstrations and strikes to protest the war, and in the fall of 1918 this discontent turned revolutionary. The Hungarian military refused to follow orders to end the protests, and the Hungarian king was forced to appoint a liberal, reformist government, led by Mihály Károlyi (1875–1955), that sued for peace and declared Hungary to be an independent, democratic republic.

Hungary lost a great deal of its territory because of its defeat in the war. It lost Transylvania to Romania; Croatia, Vojvodina (the northern part of modern-day Serbia), and Bosnia and Herzegovina to the newly created Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (later to become Yugoslavia); and Slovakia to the newly created country of Czechoslovakia. Overall Hungary lost nearly three-quarters of its land and two-thirds of its inhabitants.

The new, fragile democratic government could not withstand such a defeat. In March 1919 it was overthrown in a Communist coup led by Béla Kun (1886–1937). Kun instituted a Communist dictatorship that promised to empower workers and peasants, but which also arrested and tortured people who opposed the Communists’ plans. Kun promised to restore the lands that Hungary had lost, but when he launched an invasion of Slovakia, his army was defeated and the Communist government fell to the Romanian army. In 1920 the Treaty of Trianon formalized Hungary’s loss of territory.

After a brief but violent period known as the “white terror,” in which anti-Communist forces arrested and executed Communists and other leftists, Hungary became a democracy in the 1920s, before tending toward fascism in the 1930s. Hungary’s friendly relations with Nazi Germany allowed it to temporarily regain some of its lost land, but when the Nazis were defeated Hungary was again forced to give up those territories. Hungary also suffered another period of political terror—its third in thirty years—in the closing days of the war, as German troops and members of Hungary’s fascist Arrow Cross Party slaughtered Jews, and the advancing Soviet Army sent a quarter of a million Hungarians to murderous forced labor camps in Siberia.

After World War II Hungary fell under the influence of the Soviet Union, and by 1949 Hungary was a fully Communist country. The government took control of nearly all of the farms and businesses in the country and cracked down on the churches. It also empowered the police and internal intelligence agencies to spy on all of the citizens of the country and to arrest and torture those who were believed to be insufficiently loyal to the government.

In 1956 tens of thousands of people held a protest in Budapest against this Communist dictatorship. Soviet troops, who had been stationed in Hungary since the end of World War II, rushed to suppress the protests. The Hungarian army sided with the protesters, and the Hungarian uprising became a war. The Soviet Union crushed the uprising a few weeks later, with the help of 250,000 troops sent in from outside the country, but thousands of people were killed in the process.

Hungarians became resigned to living under a Communist dictatorship and stopped protesting against it. Because of their quietness, the Soviet Union allowed Hungary’s leaders more freedom to experiment than it gave to the leaders of more restless countries such as Czechoslovakia and Poland. From the late 1960s to the late 1980s, Hungary slowly moved toward a more capitalistic and democratic system. By 1989 Hungary was largely a free country, and on October 7, 1989, it became official when Hungary’s ruling Communist party, the Socialist Workers’ Party, announced that it was abandoning communism and becoming a democratic socialist party. Less than two weeks later Hungary’s National Assembly amended the country’s constitution to make Hungary a fully democratic republic.

Government Structure

The members of the Hungarian National Assembly are elected under a complex system of varying geographical districts and different methods of voting. One hundred seventy-six of the 386 members of the assembly are elected based on individual constituencies (in which one person represents one district, as in the U.S. House of Representatives). These elections generally occur in two rounds. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote in the first round of voting, the top two finishers in the first round go head-to-head in the second round.

Two different party-list systems determine the remainder of the representatives, with the votes going to parties rather than to individual candidates. In the first party-list system, 152 representatives are elected from 20 electoral districts (one for each of the 19 counties of Hungary and one for the capital, Budapest). Voters in each district vote for the party that they prefer, and each party receives a number of seats in the parliament based on the number of votes that party received. (The exact number of seats is determined using a mathematical formula known as the d’Hondt method.) Each party prepares a ranked list of candidates before the election, and if, for example, the party received ten seats in a given district, those ten seats would go to the people listed one through ten on its list.

In the second party-list system, the remaining 58 seats are filled by nationwide party lists. The voters do not vote directly for the national lists. Instead, all of the votes that went to losing candidates in the individual constituencies’ portion of the voting are used to determine how many of these 58 seats a party receives. So, for example, a party that had many candidates finish a close second in the individual constituencies’ portion of the voting would receive a large portion of these seats, whereas a party whose candidates generally placed a distant fourth or fifth—or a party whose candidates all won their individual races—would receive few or no seats. A party has to receive at least 5 percent of the total nationwide vote in order for the party to receive any seats in parliament based on the district or the national list portions of the voting.

Once the National Assembly has been elected, it elects people to the other major positions within the government, including the president, the prime minister, the judges of the Constitutional Court, the chairperson of the Supreme Court, and the prosecutor general (similar to the U.S. attorney general). The prime minister is the most powerful official in the government, as is the case in nearly all parliamentary democracies.

The president is supposed to be elected by a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly, but if no candidate wins two-thirds of the vote in the first two rounds of voting, the president may be elected by a simple majority. The president, whose position is largely ceremonial, is elected to a five-year term and is limited to serving no more than two terms.

The Constitutional Court functions much as the Supreme Court does in the United States. Its eleven members, who are elected for nine-year terms, review laws to ensure that they are constitutional. The Hungarian Supreme Court is a separate body that acts as the highest appeals court; that is, defendants who appeal court decisions to a higher court can go no higher than the Supreme Court.

Political Parties and Factions

Hungary is a multiparty democracy in which two parties dominate: the Hungarian Socialist Party (a direct descendant of the Socialist Workers’ Party that ruled the country in Communist times) and Fidesz (also known as the Federation of Young Democrats–Hungarian Civic Union). The Hungarian Socialist Party is nominally the left-wing party and Fidesz is nominally on the right, but in reality, the Hungarian Socialist Party has been a strong defender of free markets and privatizing government-owned industries, whereas Fidesz has frequently argued against such reforms.

Smaller parties include the Alliance of Free Democrats (which has traditionally been allied with the Hungarian Socialist Party), the Hungarian Democratic Forum, the Christian Democratic People’s Party, and the Independent Smallholders’ Party (which was formerly a major party but has since collapsed to the point such that it can no longer earn enough votes to win any seats in parliament).

Since Hungary became a multiparty democracy, power has been handed back and forth between various coalitions in the Hungarian parliament. The first elected post-Communist government, from 1990 to 1994, was run by the Hungarian Democratic Forum, the Independent Smallholders’ Party, and the Christian Democratic People’s Party. The Hungarian Socialist Party and the Alliance of Free Democrats ruled from 1994 to 1998, and again from 2002 to the present. Between 1998 and 2002 Fidesz, in coalition with the Hungarian Democratic Forum, controlled the government.

Major Events

Hungary’s transition from communism to capitalism and democracy was relatively smooth. Post-Communist Hungarian politics have been raucous, with frequently bitter arguments and allegations of corruption between the various factions in the parliament, but elections have been free and fair and many necessary economic reforms have been carried out.

Twenty-First Century

Twenty-first-century Hungary is well on the road to becoming a fully developed country and a full member of Europe. Hungary was one of the first Eastern European countries to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which it did in 1999, and it joined the European Union in 2004. The major problems facing Hungary are economic, as nearly everyone realizes that Hungary cannot afford the generous health, educational, and other benefits that the government continues to provide to all citizens, but there is little political support for making cuts to these popular programs.

Ake, Anne. Hungary . San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 2003.

Crampton, R. J. Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century—And After . 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Republic of Hungary. “Hungary.hu.” (accessed June 14, 2007).

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