The question buzzing around Budapest is plaintive, even brutal: ``How would you like it if Ronald Reagan was President for 32 years and asked for another four-year term?'' Hungary's Janos Kadar came to power on the ruins of the 1956 Revolution and proceeded to charm Hungarians with his ``goulash communism,'' a blend of authoritarianism and limited economic freedoms.
But as Hungarian Communists open a crucial party conference today, pressure is mounting to remove the aging leader. Prime Minister Karoly Grosz recently advised Mr. Kadar to respect ``biological laws,'' and top party leaders interviewed by the Monitor predict that 40 percent of the Central Committee, mostly septuagenarians, will be changed at the conference.
``The old system has run out of steam,'' concedes Janos Barabas of the Central Committee. ``We must produce a new political model.''
Kadar's problems are paradoxical. Although the Hungarian leader long ago applied glasnost (openness) in the press and perestroika (restructuring) in the economy, he seems out of date in the Gorbachev era.
In comparison to the youthful, energetic Soviet leader, Kadar appears stodgy and immobile, resembling bygone Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
``During the Brezhnev period, other socialist countries were telling us that we were going too far, so it was easy to be cautious and limit ourselves to a type of enlightened absolutism,'' says Jozsef Bognar, a leading economic reformer.
``In the Gorbachev period, the psychological situation is different, and we need to make radical changes,'' he said.
With a shock, Hungarians are waking up to politics. Radical communist reformers want nothing less than to narrow the party's ``leading role.''
They are led by Imre Pozsgay, a Central Committee member, who wants to use the Gorbachev opening to expand private enterprise, establish an independent parliament, create independent courts, and legalize independent associations, even independent trade unions.
``The greatest danger to stability is not to change, and change fast,'' Mr. Pozsgay told the Monitor. ``We must rebuild public confidence and create a new way in which conflicts can be resolved in this society.''
Conservatives agree with this analysis - to a point. Led by Central Committee Secretary Janos Berecz, they are ready to proceed with some Pozsgay-style reforms, albeit at a slower, more cautious pace.
While Pozsgay emphasizes the dangers of not moving fast enough, Mr. Berecz stresses that too much change will lead to unrest.
``We must reform and open up, but we keep control from above,'' says a leading Communist official who asked not to be named. ``Otherwise, there will be anarchy.''
How fast to move is crucial. Dissidents, who used to be confined to a few isolated coffeehouse intellectuals, have burst out of their ghetto and expanded to include a good part of the intellectual class.
Old taboos fall almost every day. Independent discussion clubs are reappearing and flourishing. Journalists have founded a Glasnost Club, students started a new independent student union, and scientists formed an independent trade union for research workers.
This emerging opposition still faces formidable obstacles. It enjoys little, if any working-class support. A Polish-style uprising seems unlikely, though some minor strikes have been reported.
``We can't hope to have 10 million members like Solidarity,'' laments Pal Forgacs, leader of the new independent scientists union. ``A mass movement cannot be formed overnight.''
Divisions within the opposition pose another great obstacle. On one side are the Populists, Hungarian nationalists in the tradition of the prewar Smallholders' Party.
Dominated by students, teachers, and the provincial middle class, the Populists focus on the plight of fellow Hungarians in Romania.
On another side are the Urbanists, the descendants of the small but influential prewar Liberal Party. Their activists are Budapest intellectuals, many of them Jewish.
The Urbanists last month formed a Network for Free Initiatives which resembles Czechoslovakia's Charter 77 dissident group or Poland's old KOR. It disavows nationationlism and concentrates instead on defending civil rights and demanding a multiparty democracy.
Until recently, the Urbanist-Populist split was bridged by a common opposition to the Communists. But things no longer are simple.
While police have interrogated and even beaten up Urbanist leaders in recent months, some Communists seem to considering a type of informal alliance with the Populists. Reformer Pozsgay attended a Populist meeting in September at Lakitelek, a village in southwest Hungary.
Since then, the political temperature has not stopped rising. Angered conservatives responded to the Lakitelek meeting by expelling four refomers close to Pozsgay from the party.
Meanwhile, at the founding last weekend of the scientists' union, an Urbanist organization, a Populist speaker was booed and prevented from finishing his prepared talk.
This weekend's party conference will go far to determine where the tensions will lead. If Kadar stays, the situation will remain volatile. If he goes, all depends on his successor, Pozsgay or Berecz, or more likely, a compromise candidate, such as Prime Minister Grosz.
A joke now making the rounds here best sums up the myriad dangers ahead.
``When things go bad, what are the differences between Hungary and the West?''
``In the West, the government is dismissed and the system remains.''
``In Hungary, the government remains, and the system is destroyed.''