POLITICAL and social changes in Hungary are taking place at such a rate of speed that even insiders sometimes feel that the situation is careening out of control. ``There's a new joke going around,'' said Judith Toth, legal adviser to the Interior Ministry's recently created Refugee Affairs Office.
``A Hungarian goes abroad on vacation for two weeks. When he comes back, he doesn't even know anymore the correct way to greet people.
``He asks a friend, What do I say? `Hello?' `Hello, comrade?' Or do I just raise a clenched fist and shout, `Freedom!'''
Just a week before a crucial congress of the Hungarian Communist Party, both the party and the opposition are split. Opposition deputies took their seats in the Hungarian parliament for the first time in 42 years Tuesday and will take up draft laws which call for a full multiparty democracy. The new opposition deputies defeated Communist Party candidates in four recent by-elections, which provided a first test of freely contested elections.
The political situation here can only be described as fluid, and few people of any political stripe are willing to predict what may happen in the next few months as the country heads toward elections likely to leave the Communists out of power.
``When I was a dissident, I felt somehow I was a master of my fate,'' said Miklos Haraszti, a member of the opposition Free Democratic Party. He was one of the key Hungarian dissidents before the Communists decided last year to move toward a multiparty democracy.
``Now,'' Mr. Haraszti said, ``I feel like I'm drifting. I'm always reacting to developments. I'm not able to plan out what to do.''
He and members of other opposition groups as well as Communist officials said the concept of ``dissidence'' has lost its meaning in Hungarian politics.
The Communist Party Congress opens Oct. 6, and most observers - both within and outside the party - assume that the party will split as reformists and more orthodox Marxists battle over whether to transform the party into part of the mainstream European left.
``There are people who speak about a split, but it's not so much a danger as it seems,'' said party Central Committee member Istvan Degen, an aide to reform-minded party chairman Rezso Nyers.
Mr. Degen said he did not foresee the party breaking into two or three big separate groups, but that more orthodox Communists would probably break off the main body on their own.
These would be people, he said, ``who can't go along with the new [reformist] leadership and the new program. They still think a one-party system is necessary. They think that the dictatorship of the proletariat is the leading idea.''
``We are not willing to put groups out by force,'' he added. ``Those people have to decide whether to leave or not - but it won't be by force. ... It wouldn't be a split in the sense that two big parts would continue to exist.''
After the party congress, he said, ``the party will have a new program, a new leadership. It can leave behind the very heavy baggage of its past mistakes.''
Outside observers, less optimistic than Mr. Degen, say the only question is whether the hard-liners break off from the reformists - or the reformists break off from the hard-liners.
Opposition politicians are even less optimistic that the party will survive the predicted upheavals - but the prospect does not concern them.
``The Communist Party is disintegrating,'' said Tibor Baranyai of the Social Democratic Party - one of at least nine opposition parties expected to face the Communists in the East bloc's first truly free elections sometime next year.
``There are eight or nine groups in the party,'' Mr. Baranyai said. ``The only thing keeping them together is power. The wine of power is very sweet. Most people want to stay close to the source.''
Said Haraszti, ``The party will probably change its name. It will kick out some Stalinists and may create some marginal organization, but the bulk of the party will remain. ... But even with this still united, renamed party, they will have no chance to win the elections ...
``The fight is on for little percentage points,'' he said. ``The party will be fighting not to go below 15 percent of the votes.''
Communist officials say that in the legislative elections - which are expected to be held by next March - they are hoping for a relative majority, but to many people this seems unrealistic.
The Communists so far have lost four straight parliamentary elections to opposition candidates, the last one this month by a 2-to-1 margin.
Nonetheless, the opposition is far from united, except in broad goals of anticommunism and commitments to a free market economy and a pluralistic democracy.
Open splits developed last week over a decision taken on constitutional changes at trilateral talks among the Communists, official social organizations, and a ``round table'' of nine opposition parties.
Three of the nine opposition groups at the talks refused to endorse otherwise unanimous compromise agreements won at the talks. These include agreements on the timing of the election of a federal president, the removal of Communist Party cells from the workplace, a new information and media law, and the Communist Party's only partial dissolution of the workers' militia, a paramilitary group formed to protect the party's interest.
Meanwhile, there were clear indications that some politicians, including Imre Pozsgay, the country's probable new president, were trying to bridge the gap between Communists and opposition and form a consensus party with roots in both sides.
Mr. Pozsgay, the most liberal and outspoken member of Hungary's current four-man Communist leadership and the key catalyst for the reformist changes of the past few years, was recently elected president of the Movement for a Democratic Hungary, a new mass organization founded by reformist Communists.
There is speculation that Pozsgay, who is virtually certain to be elected Hungarian president in Nov. 26 elections, might transform his reformist movement into a party, possibly in collaboration with the Hungarian Democratic Forum. The Democratic Forum is Hungary's largest opposition party; its politics are mainly mainstream classic liberalism, tinged with nationalistic overtones.