ON a glorious Indian summer day, in a mood of national jubilation, Hungary this week commemorated the most painful event in its postwar history and thereby took another step toward a free and democratic society. ``I now feel this country is over the hump. The basic direction is set, and I am cautiously optimistic that within a few months this country will be the scene of the first-ever free elections in a communist country,'' a senior Western diplomat said.
On Monday, the Republic of Hungary was announced from the balcony of the parliament building before almost 100,000 Hungarians. The new name replaces the old communist one (the People's Republic of Hungary).
The announcement came both on top of a series of momentous decisions by the Communist Party (now renamed the Hungarian Socialist Party) and the parliament in past weeks and on the anniversary of the 1956 uprising for a democratic Hungary.
The revolt was crushed under Soviet tanks. Executions, imprisonment, and a return to Stalinism followed. The uprising was later officially called a ``counterrevolution'' and was a taboo subject.
But the Hungarians could not forget. On Monday, a gray-haired woman stood in front of the headquarters of the Hungarian radio station on Brody Sandor Street, where the first freedom fighters fell - her eyes full of tears and her pain, to this day, over her lost son too great to talk about.
A plaque in memory of those who were killed was uncovered on the yellow wall of the radio headquarters and an old hymn, ``God bless the Hungarians,'' echoed in the narrow street.
The gathering on Brody Sandor Street was only one of many.
Demonstrators marched through downtown, aided by policemen who stopped traffic. In front of the technical faculty of the university on the banks of the Danube, flags proclaiming ``Never again communism'' formed the backdrop for a rally of the opposition groups. And on Kossuth Square by the parliament building, huge crowds at noon and in the evening celebrated the memory of the uprising, a celebration that would have been impossible only a year ago.
``This is the nicest day of my life,'' said Zoltan Biro, a technician who cheered and applauded as Matyas Szuros, the speaker of the parliament and the acting president, proclaimed the new republic from the balcony overlooking the square packed with people.
The commemoration at the parliament building continued long into the evening, in a candlelit ceremony under a huge portrait of Imre Nagy, the executed leader of the uprising. Scattered shouts were heard of ``Russians go home.'' The green, white, and red Hungarian flag, without the red star of the old communist regime, flew everywhere. And people sang.
It was ``a very good evening for Hungary,'' said architect Gizella Borcsok as she stood in the crowd, holding a candle.
The day culminated a dramatic week, during which the parliament voted overwhelmingly for almost 100 changes in the 1949 Communist Constitution, thereby paving the way for the first multiparty free elections in Hungary in 42 years. The vote in parliament was 333 to 5, with 8 abstentions. Among the changes were the elimination of the leading role of the Communist Party, which had voted to dissolve itself the previous week.
According to the constitutional amendments, Hungary will become an independent democratic republic in which political parties can be freely established. The parliament voted to disband the dreaded Workers Militia, a volunteer police force created after the 1956 uprising. And it ordered the dismantling of Communist Party organizations in the factories and workplaces, which had been an important element of the party's control of everyday life.
Parliament did not decide, however, when presidential elections will take place. They are scheduled for Nov. 26, but the opposition would like them postponed until after the parliamentary elections, which, in turn, are to be held before next June.
At the present pace of Hungary's march toward democracy, these elections could very likely take place much sooner. The whole country seems to be in a hurry, even though some, especially the young, still think the pace is too slow.