Hungarians get a small chance to challenge the Establishment

When Hungarians go to the polls tomorrow to elect a new parliament and local councils, they will have the opportunity to vote against Establishment nominees. The election is apparently a further attempt by the communist leadership to give people a sense of more substantive participation in government.

But, at the same time, the vote will not pose a challenge to the Communist Party's overall control of Hungary.

Even in Janos Kadar's Hungary, where cautious political reform has been the pattern since the early 1970s, this choice of candidates will be no more than a referendum on the government's existing policies. It is in no way an election with alternative policy options.

Indeed, all candidates had to pledge to accept that program before they were finally approved for the ballot. This was true whether they belonged to the vast majority approved by the Communist Party's watchdog organization, the People's Patriotic Front (PPF), or to the ``independent'' handful.

The lawmakers balked at any concession to party plurality. There is no need in Hungary for this ``bourgeois'' concept, party spokesmen say. The new law requiring at least two candidates for each seat, they say, opens the door to participation by diverse interests -- party and nonparty members, labor unions, churches, and the arts.

Nonetheless, the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers Party -- the Communist Party, that is -- is assured of a working majority. It was apportioned 60 percent of the 352 seats in the parliamentary chamber in advance. The rest are ostensibly open to ``nonparty'' individuals and organizations.

The element of voter choice comes into play with the requirement that at least two candidates -- and as many more as can command the required minimal public support for adoption -- stand for seats in parliament and in local elections. That is a bit further than any of the East bloc's other parties have gone.

Under the rule calling for at least two candidates for a seat, there are about 770 nominees for the 352 available seats in parliament. For 54 of the seats there will be three-cornered contests. Four are to be contested by four candidates.

Senior party leaders themselves acknowledge that there can be and are no ``fundamental differences'' between the standpoints of the nominees -- whether party or nonparty members -- who won selection in the month-long process of selecting candidates.

Even two dissidents who boldly presented themselves at voters' meetings in Budapest ventured no alternative to the basic party program.

Popular response to the new opportunity was mixed. Newspapers here candidly admitted apathy in the face of ``foregone conclusions.'' For example, only 28 of 900 registered voters attended one nomination meeting.

Some other meetings, however, saw lively debate. At the local council level, where nearly 60,000 seats are up for election, a number of PPF-promoted candidates failed to win the necessary one-third of the votes to get on the ticket. Some 40 individuals who were not on the Front's recommended list did.

When, in the early 1970s, the Kadar regime tentatively tried dual candidatures, only nine parliamentary seats were ``contested'' and the party's nominee in each instance was eventually elected.

That may not be so easy this time, although some dissidents have claimed the nomination meetings were manipulated to exclude independents. They have urged voters to boycott the polls.

But others see the wider choice of candidates as a positive step, and a chance to make public confidence in an individual a criterion in the PPF's own selections.

Overall, however, the public -- greatly encouraged when the new law was first under discussion -- appears to have been disappointed by the ultimate outcome.

For example, a so-called national list of 35 notables was placed on the ballot unopposed. The electorate is simply called upon to confirm their selection. The idea seems to have been, in part, to show the merit of continuity. All 35 are ``prominent'' Hungarians, against whom it would have been hopeless for others to run, said the weekly publication Magyarorszag -- apparently unconscious of the irony of the comment.

Prominent they certainly are, with party leader Janos Kadar and almost all his Politburo among them. To the man in the street, however, it must look like an ``inner cabinet'' of parliament created before the body had even been elected.

Still, the Hungarian leadership has been at pains to remove the appearance of rubber-stamp approval that is still common among public governing bodies elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

It is in the party's own interest, Mr. Kadar has said, that parliament ``be seen as successful'' and effective. But, more than anything else, the limits of the operation still reflect a middle-of-the-road, generally cautious approach to reform.

While Kadar is around, at least, most Hungarians appear ready to settle for that.

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