When art museum after art museum was constructed in this charming town on the Danube, residents complained to local officials about their neglected schools. The authorities responded by building a museum. Now that may change. Szentendre's voters elected handsome, dynamic Istvan Szini last June under new electoral laws that allowed two candidates to compete for the mayoralty. Mr. Szini vows to build a bigger school.
``In the past, central authorities assigned funds to cities and told them how to spend them,'' Szini says. ``We are getting more powers. We will decide how to spend our own money.''
After giving market forces freer rein in a centrally controlled economy, Hungary's Communist Party has instituted some cautious political reforms. Along with the new local election system, two or more candidates were permitted to run for each seat in the last parliamentary elections. The innovations leave intact the party's grip on power, since dissidents were blocked from winning and parliament remains a rubber-stamp body.
On the local level, though, a visit to Szentendre shows that the reforms have real meaning. Thanks to the election campaign, Szentendre's problems are being debated more openly.
In the past, change came from the center, in brutal fashion. A generation ago, Szentendre was a little backwater of 10,000 people. Then some planner in Budapest decided to turn it into a tourist center, taking advantage of its location only 12 miles north of the capital, its picturesque cobblestoned streets and baroque houses, and its modest artistic tradition dating from the turn of the century -- when a group of avant-garde painters created an artistic colony here.
``In 10 years, 13 museums were built,'' recalls former Mayor Lajos Marosvolgyi. ``They draw 11/2 million visitors every year.''
Some of Szentendre's citizens cashed in. The onrush coincided with the legalization of private stores. And a flock of souvenir shops, flower vendors, clothing boutiques, and restaurants opened to satisfy tourist tastes.
``Fifteen years ago, none of this was here,'' says Klara Fodor of the Charlotte Boutique. She points to the fashionable clothing in her privately owned store and to the string of boutiques lining the street. ``Everything was dirty and drab.''
But Hungary has not turned into a capitalist paradise. Private enterprise accounts for less than 2 percent of the country's industrial output -- and many would-be enterpreneuers are frustrated.
At the Szentendre Muhely Galeria, the shopkeeper explains that private art galleries are not permitted.
``They want to keep control over art,'' he explains. ``I could run this gallery better if I owned it.''
The new mayor won by promoting a new image. Szini is a committed Communist Party member. But in contrast to the balding 60-year-old Mr. Marosvolgyi, the 40-year-old Szini looks like a youthful John F. Kennedy. He is a computer programmer with a doctorate in economics from the University of Budapest, and he portrays himself as hardworking, competent, and forward-looking.
His philosophy runs counter to the town planner's gigantic vision. Instead of new apartment blocks, he hopes to build a supermarket -- and, of course, a new school.
Construction will be difficult. Expanded local powers come with a catch -- fewer funds. Pressed by tight budget constraints and not wanting to raise taxes, the central authorities want the localities to raise their own money.
``We plan a voluntary tax,'' Szini explains. ``We don't have the powers to institute mandatory taxes, but we will try to show the residents that their money would be well spent. We'll ask them to pay five times as much as before.''
Overly ambitious? Szini smiles.
``Maybe,'' he admits, ``but at least there won't be any new museums.''