AFTER spending a few years in the political wilderness, Socialist parties in several Central European nations are obtaining through the ballot box what they could not have kept with force: power.
Hungary's Socialists are the latest of the region's ex-Communists to complete the political cycle, after skillfully shedding their totalitarian image and repackaging themselves as caring capitalists. Hungary's Socialist Party swept back to power in Sunday's second round of parliamentary elections by winning 209 of the 386 seats in the newly elected legislature.
Several factors are responsible for the socialist comeback not only in Hungary, but also in Poland and Lithuania. First, socialist leaders exhibited shrewd political acumen, taking maximum advantage of the inexperience of the conservative, pro-market reformers who came to power in those countries following communism's collapse in 1989.
``After 40 years of communism, people didn't know much about a market. They anticipated an overnight transformation,'' says Jaroslaw Mulewicz, a Warsaw-based economic consultant. ``No one told them that it takes blood, sweat, and tears.''
The difficult economic transition of Central European nations produced popular amnesia about the past, in which people recalled only the good, and not the bad, about life under communism.
``There is nostalgia for the easy-going atmosphere of goulash communism,'' says Bela Kadar, the outgoing Hungarian minister of international economic relations, referring to the mixed economic system that allowed limited private enterprise during the Communist era. ``Labor discipline and productivity ... was never taken into account. Now performance is a factor,'' he says.
In the cases of Hungary and Poland, pivotal to the socialists' recent electoral successes was their ability to initiate changes and dump their ideological baggage long before the fall of the Berlin Wall. For example, the Hungarian and Polish Communist authorities started loosening the levers of political and economic control as early as the 1970s. Lithuania's Communists, meanwhile, gained popular respect for pursuing a somewhat-independent course from Moscow during the last years of the Soviet era.
The reformist reputations allowed the Hungarian, Polish, and Lithuanian Communists to retain credibility after 1989, when they started to rechristen themselves as pro-market socialists.
Once back in power, the socialists are finding it is not as easy to govern as it was in the Communist era. With free-market forces taking hold of the economies, the governing socialists in Poland and Lithuania have already found they have little room to maneuver as they strive to maintain the momentum of reform, while fulfilling campaign promises of a softer move to a market economy.
In Poland, the governing socialist coalition is now struggling to cope with labor unrest, primarily due to the government's reluctance to veer off the path of fiscal responsibility to indulge trade union desires for the restoration of the extensive social safety net. ``There's no money to make changes, even if the government wanted to,'' Mr. Mulewicz says. ``The basic framework for free enterprise is already there, and no one can change it.'' It could be the same story for the Hungarian socialists once they formally take the reins of government, Mulewicz and other Central European political observers say.
Hungarian trade unions, strong supporters of the Socialists, now find their political influence greatly enhanced. Thus, if the Socialist-led government is unable to quickly deliver on the campaign promise of more socially oriented reforms, it may face the wrath of labor.