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Elections to the National Assembly

In 1983 the government instituted a new electoral system for the National Assembly and local councils to encourage more popular participation in governmental affairs. Before 1966 Hungary had used an electoral system in which a voter could vote only for or against the official slate of candidates. In 1966 the government initiated election procedures that made the nomination of more than one candidate possible; in the 1971 elections, 49 districts out of 352 nominated two or more candidates. By 1981, however, the number of multicandidate districts declined to fifteen, thus causing concern within the party leadership and eventually triggering reform.

In 1983 the regime instituted a new electoral system for several reasons. British authority Bill Lomax has written that Hungarian leaders "felt sufficient confidence that by granting measured degrees of independence and autonomy to society, they could win not just the passivity but the complicity if not quite the loyalty of major sections of the population." Through its multicandidate elections, the regime attempted to convince the populace that the political system was essentially democratic. The electoral system afforded the government the opportunity to mobilize people in support of a political campaign and thereby increase their political awareness. Finally, the elections provided an occasion for testing the HSWP's organizational and supervisory abilities.

The new rules compelled the nomination of several candidates in single-member districts. Both residents of the district and workers employed in the district but living elsewhere could participate in the nomination meetings. At the meetings, voters could ask questions of the candidates and comment on their programs with support or objections. The PPF organized the meetings and proposed the candidates. Nominations could also be submitted by other social and political organizations or persons in the district. All candidates, however, had to accept the PPF program to be eligible for nomination. Thus the procedure favored regime candidates and minimized the chances for an independent. For a candidate to gain nomination, 33.3 percent of the persons present at the meeting had to cast a "yes" vote. If no candidate received the required percentage, another nomination meeting was held. In addition, the rules stipulated that the number of nomination meetings equal the number of candidates, but each parliamentary district had to have at least two candidates and therefore two meetings. All proposals for the nomination of independent candidates had to be resubmitted at the next meeting. The rules also allowed each citizen to vote for several nominees. Because the regime could use the PPF to mobilize large numbers of people against undesirable candidates, this rule discriminated against independent nominees.

The efforts of the dissident Laszlo Rajk to gain nomination illustrate the barriers faced by independent nominees. On April 18, 1985, at the first of the two required nomination meetings in the southern constituency of Budapest's fifth district, Rajk gained the support of about 40 percent of the 223 people present. At the second electoral meeting on April 22, the regime attempted to thwart Rajk's nomination. HSWP activists, plainclothes police, and factory workers filled the hall. Rajk's speech raised such controversial issues as conscientious objection to military service, the fate of the environment, and the problem of Hungarian minorities abroad (see Relations with Other Communist Neighbors , this ch.). At the second meeting, only about 27 percent of the of the 1,388 voters present supported Rajk.

In addition to the obligatory multiple candidacies, the new electoral system called for the establishment of a national list of thirty-five candidates to be elected without opposition. Politburo member Mihaly Korom justified the national list by arguing that "important interests demand the representation of leading personalities" from society, culture, science, and the churches. Korom maintained that the "character of their work, the province of their activities go far beyond the boundaries of their electoral districts." The law was successful in promoting multiple candidacies throughout the country. In addition, some independent candidates gained nomination and election. Of the 352 National Assembly constituencies in the 1985 election, 298 had two candidates each, 50 had three candidates each, and 4 had four candidates each. Most of the triple and quadruple candidacies occurred in Borsod-Aba˙j-Zemplen, Fejer, and Pest counties and in Budapest. Of the 152 people who were not originally on the PPF list and were nominated from the floor, 70 received the necessary one-third votes at two or more nominating meetings, and 51 of them had been proposed in addition to the 2 nominees successfully nominated by the PPF.

About 1.5 million people, or 20 percent of the country's eligible voters, participated in the nominating meetings for the 1985 elections to the National Assembly and the local councils. Approximately 150,000 people asked to speak out at the meetings in support of the proposed candidates.

In the general election, abstention rates were high by East European standards. Turnout in the whole country was 93.9 percent, down from 97 percent in 1980. The turnout in Budapest was 88.4 percent. The number of valid votes cast (votes submitted according to the rules) was 94.6 percent; in Budapest this figure was 92.3 percent. Negative votes--votes cast against all candidates on the ballot--amounted to 1.2 percent of valid votes.

Of the 352 electoral districts, 42 required runoff elections because no candidate could muster the required 50 percent plus one of the valid votes. Another eighty constituencies had close contests. Of the seventy-eight independents who gained nomination, forty-three won seats after runoff elections. Nevertheless, thirty-three of these forty-three candidates were party members. The proportion of independent candidates was quite low, but, according to American political scientist Barnabas Racz, their nomination marked an unprecedented development in the history of East European elections.

Although the 1985 election was democratic by East European standards, Hungarian dissidents and Western commentators pinpointed several troubling features. In most of the electoral districts, the two PPF candidates were the only nominees. In addition, only the priorities of the candidates differed, not their programs. The regime subjected campaign literature to strict copying regulations, and it took steps to limit publicity for candidates. Dissidents maintained that the procedures favored the big industrial enterprises, which packed nomination meetings with supporters for their preferred candidates. In turn, these candidates, once elected, formed parliamentary lobbies that supported increases in subsidies for the industries to which they owed their nomination.

Data as of September 1989

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