BUDAPEST — TIVADAR PARTAY first entered the Hungarian Parliament in 1939. Five decades later, he is trying to make a political comeback, leading his Smallholders Party in next year's parliamentary elections - the communist country's first free elections in four decades. ``I'm trying to explain the political facts of life to the young people,'' he says in a genial tone. ``They just want power. They don't have any respect for the older generation.''
Since the legalization of independent associations earlier this year, Hungary's budding political opposition has found itself beset by ideological quarrels and leadership disputes.
A dozen or so different parties have emerged. They range from the left-wing Bajcsy Zsilinszky Friendship Society to comparatively rightist groups like the Christian Democrats. Membership figures for all remain small, from an estimated 20,000 for the nationalistic Democratic Forum to a mere several hundred for a Gypsy party.
This fragmentation represents both a potential danger as well as opportunity in the delicate transition from a one-party state to a multiparty democracy. In Poland, the united Solidarity crushed the ruling communists and created a political crisis. In Hungary, the communists still hold reasonable hopes to emerge as the single largest party in free elections. That helps them dare to go beyond the Polish model of partially free elections and hold a fully free vote.
But the absence of a united, strong opposition also leaves a potentially dangerous power vacuum. In order to set the ground rules for the elections, the communists complain that they need a partner. Only after months of discussion, did the nine leading opposition groupings manage to form the Opposition Roundtable which is holding talks with party leaders in the neo-Gothic Parliament building.
``Our opposition lacks the natural coherence of the Polish opposition,'' says Janos Barabas, the newly appointed Central Committee ideology chief. ``It isn't ready to take power. But it also makes it hard to find someone with whom to strike an agreement.''
Two main crosscurrents split the opposition. On one side stand the so-called ``nostalgic'' parties, resuscitations of pre-1947 political associations such as the Smallholders and the Social Democrats. On the other side stand the ``new parties'' which emerged from the post-1947 ``democratic opposition,'' mainly the Free Democrats and the Democratic Forum.
The Free Democrats are ``liberals.'' Dominated by Budapest intellectuals, they look to Western Europe for inspiration. The Democratic Forum are ``nationalists.'' Dominated by writers, they promote a Hungarian ``Third Way'' between East and West.
`OUR first priority is resuscitating the Hungarian nation, while their first priority is establishing a democratic society,'' explains Istvan Csurka, founder of the Democratic Forum. ``We're both friends and adversaries.''
In their ranks, the Free Democrats include many of Hungary's intellectuals, most of whom speak foreign languages. But they remain an elitist movement of about only 3,000 members, largely confined to Budapest. The Democratic Forum is larger, with about 20,000 members, and has spread its roots further around the country. But even it does not yet represent a mass movement.
``People are confused, afraid to get involved,'' complains Mihaly Bihari, a Free Democrat official. The ``nostalgic'' parties enjoy better name recognition. In Hungary's last partially free election, in 1945, the Social Democrats received 17.4 percent and the Smallholders a sweeping 57 percent. Smallholder leader Ferenc Nagy became prime minister. But by 1947, leading Smallholders and other noncommunists were arrested, including Partay.
``I went to the police for a 10-minute talk,'' he recalls. ``It ended up lasting 56 months.''
Set free in 1953, he only found work as a manual laborer. After the 1956 uprising he was rearrested and imprisoned again until 1959. He is now retired from his job as a clerk in the Ministry of Commerce.
His revived Smallholders are hampered by a weak platform and leadership quarrels. In former times, the Smallholders represented the large Hungarian peasantry. But four decades of industrialization have emptied the villages of former Smallholder supporters.
Since its revival a year ago in his summer cottage with 80 fellow veterans, Partay says the party has grown to only about 6,000 people. Worse, it has failed to present a program or coordinate recruiting efforts because of generational difficulties.
``Instead of trying to elaborate a program,'' Partay complains, ``we spend all our time fighting between the old and young.''
Despite all these difficulties, no one is giving up on the Smallholders. Opinion polls show them scoring better than the more modern Free Democrats and Democratic Forum.
``The new parties have a strategy, but the old parties have a name,'' laments Miklos Haraszti, a Free Democrat leader.
Partay himself is optimistic.
``We'll get at least 20 percent of the vote,'' he predicts. ``After all the mistakes of the communists during the past 40 years, people will just vote against them.''