Transitions to Democracy in Hungary and Romania: A Comparison of Parliamentary and Presidential Systems


This paper broadly seeks to provide information pertaining to the different post-communist democratization processes in Hungary and Romania. The preexisting authoritarian regimes in these countries each bore unique features that contributed to their respective shifts to democratic government. In the case of Hungary, its communist regime had features which were propitious to that country’s smooth transformation to a parliamentary republic during the “first wave” of democratization. Romania, by contrast, had a much more arduous democratic transition to its semi-presidential system. Occurring after two waves rather than just one, Romania’s less successful transition has been in large part due to its prior communist regime’s unique constitution as well as the reform-averse manner in which its former communists engaged in the emerging democratization process.

In addition, this paper seeks to highlight the most salient characteristics of each state in regards to the structure of their prior regimes and how these structures affected the transition processes that took place following the collapse of communism. The first chapter presents the successful case of Hungary, which had rather auspicious developments in motion decades before the collapse of communism. Next, the second chapter looks to Romania’s less successful two-stage transition, which was hampered in large party by the constitution of the prior regime and the reform-averse communists who co-opted the post-communist system. These two chapters are then followed by a brief chapter comparing and contrasting the two states in an effort to explain why Hungary’s parliamentary system was more successful in democratizing than Romania’s semi-presidential system.

Chapter 1. Hungary’s Orderly Transition

After the fall of communism in 1989, the Hungarian government transitioned rather successfully to being a parliamentary republic. Along with Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic States, Hungary quickly developed a relatively orderly democracy combining “free, fair, and competitive elections that are regularly held; rule of law, or rules of the political game that are accepted by both elites and publics and that are applied consistently across time, space, and circumstances; and extensive civil liberties and political rights guaranteed by law” (Bunce, 2011, p. 32). Of course, it is important to note that the features which were most beneficial to Hungary’s transition to parliamentary democracy were not necessarily uniform across all the more successful states. Therefore, this section seeks to identify the characteristics distinctive to Hungary’s smooth transition from communist rule to parliamentary government.

1.1 A Precocious Start 

One thing that is important to emphasize from the beginning is just how precocious key components of Hungary’s transition to democracy were. Impetuses for this relatively early development can be seen in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the moderate era of “goulash communism,” the roundtable talks that precipitated communism’s rapid fall, and the rather smooth transition to democracy following its demise. What these events show is that the desire for democratic reform was always at or just beneath the surface in Hungary. Thanks to the precociousness of its reformist components, Hungary’s transition to parliamentary democracy was able to take root during the “first wave” of democratization from 1989-1996.

Hungary’s past accounts for much of its later precociousness. For instance, Hungary had had a great deal of experience running many of its own affairs while under Austro-Hungarian rule. Hungarians had also had a rather unsavory brush with Bolshevik rule as early as 1919, which soured the notion of communism for many early on (Argentieri, 2011, pp. 222-223). Following WWII, Hungary maintained a fleeting three-year dalliance with democracy under the Smallholders Party, though it was subverted by communists within just a few years (Hitchcock, 2003, pp. 108-110). Reformist sentiments were strong in Hungary during most of the communist era, with efforts to restructure the system coming both from the intelligentsia and students (Ciobanu, 2009, p. 7). The most critical moment was in 1956 during the Hungarian Revolution, when a strong push for reforms led to harsh Soviet repression and a brief reinstatement of hardline communist rule.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, however, Hungary managed quite a high level of autonomy under communism via the New Economic Mechanism, or “goulash communism.” This unique brand of communism allowed for more autonomy in regards to manufacturing, agriculture, tourism, foreign trade and investment, and resulted in increased standards of living (Palonen, 2012, pp. 8-9). Still, by the 1980s Hungary’s economy had stagnated and reformist sentiments began to resurface. The fear of another Soviet occupation diminished once reforms in Poland went unchecked by Gorbachev, resulting in many opposition factions coming together to test the boundaries of a weakening Soviet Union. Facing little resistance from the authorities, progressive opposition leaders symbolically cut the Iron Curtain’s barbed wire between Hungary and Austria in May of 1989, and by October Hungary had been reborn as a republic (Argentieri, 2011, pp. 223-227).

1.2. A Successful Transition 

Transitions and subsequent political orders depend to a large extend upon how the authoritarian regimes which proceeded them were first institutionalized (O’Neil, 1996, p. 579). This is definitely the case for Hungary, as many of the foregoing components of and experiences with the prior authoritarian regime helped characterize Hungary’s “first wave” transition as one of democratic order—i.e. a smooth transition to democracy that set that country apart from the hybrid and authoritarian regimes that developed elsewhere in the region. Some of the most crucial components of Hungary’s successful transition were its early development of party pluralism, the willingness of its communists to quickly adopt the opposition’s reformist agendas and the peaceful transitions of power that subsequently took place through free and fair elections (Bunce, 2011, pp. 33-34).

Regarding Hungary’s early development of party pluralism, it was lucky to have had arguably the most moderate communist party to begin with. The era of “goulash communism” from the 1960s to the 1980s was the regime’s way of legitimizing itself before the population, as it gave the regime a reformist patina and reduced Hungary’s dependence on the Soviet Union. This put a damper on revolutionary sentiments and established a precedent for reconciliation and compromise between the government and the population (Ciobanu, 2009, p. 8). By the mid-1980s, with social and economic discontent rising, even the relatively reformist Kadar regime with its anti-corruption platform lost out to even more reformist factions in the government. The smooth, top-down transition to party pluralism and parliamentary elections that soon followed was made possible by this early collaboration between reformist communists and opposition forces (Ibid, p. 13).

Early opposition parties in Hungary, like those in Poland, broke rather decisively from communism in fair (and in Poland, semi-fair) elections at the turn of the 90s. The bellwether elections in Poland, held in 1988, were an example to other opposition parties (like those in Hungary) that democratic reforms were indeed possible. Following Poland’s example, the 1990 elections in Hungary were the byproduct of roundtable meetings which were held between incumbent and opposition parties in the final years of communism—communist incumbents who were quite amenable to the opposition’s proposed reforms. Despite this openness, the communists, whose reformists had rebranded themselves as socialists, lost the first elections decidedly to the Hungarian Democratic Forum (Argentieri, 2011, pp. 227-229).

Interestingly, in surrendering complete control over the political system at the negotiating table, the former communists ensured a place for themselves in the emerging political order by promoting a mixed-member majoritarian voting system. This allowed former communists, whose moderation during “goulash communism” granted them broad support among the population, the chance to win in constituencies where communists (and, later, socialists) were still popular and had considerable political clout (Hollander, 2013, p. 97). This survival of the communists/socialists would be significant just a few years later, as they were elected into office in 1994, and then voted out of power again in 1998. In terms of Hungary’s successful transition, what this shows is that from the start, the communists/socialists were swept from power in 1990, which sent a clear message as to the reformist direction in which Hungarian society was headed; just as importantly, when the socialists returned to power, they upheld the emerging loyal power-sharing arrangement and even contributed to the reformist ethos, especially in the areas of minority rights, social rights and media freedom (Agh, 2001, p. 100).

Chapter 2. Romania’s Hybrid Transition

Contrary to Hungary’s orderly democratic transition, the transition in Romania falls into a less progressive category, namely, that of the hybrid regime. This puts Romania in the same transition category as Bulgaria, Macedonia, Slovakia, Ukraine and, later, Albania and Bosnia. Middling between democracy and dictatorship, hybrid regimes bear some of the formal characteristics of democracy, “such as representative institutions and political competition,” while failing to meet liberal standards through “unfair elections, extensive corruption, irregular recognition of civil liberties, significant biases in the media, opposition parties that are poorly organized in comparison with parties in power [and] weak ties between political representatives and the citizenry” (Bunce, 2011, pp. 32-33). Which specific features are responsible for Romania’s transition to a hybrid regime after the fall of communism? The answer to this question will be laid out in the following subsections.

2.1.    An Internal Struggle

During the “first wave” of post-communist democratization in Central and Eastern Europe (1989-1996), Romania struggled to catch up politically, socially and economically with more rapidly democratizing states such as Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. It was not until the “second wave” (1996-2009) that Romania began to improve considerably thanks to the ouster of the Social Democratic Party and the bit-by-bit reforms which culminated in Romania’s accession to NATO and the EU in 2004 and 2007, respectively. What accounted for Romania’s two-phased rather than single-phased transition were: a) the unique structure of the prior communist regime; b) the early election and extended dominance of reform-averse coalitions; c) the adoption of a semi-presidential political system; and d) the slow rise of competent opposition coalitions.

It is important to note from the outset some of the key features of communist Romania prior to the revolution that help distinguish that country from countries which democratized more rapidly. For one, Romania under Ceaușescu, much like Yugoslavia under Tito, had a great deal of autonomy relative to many other countries under communist rule. However, the Romanian Communist Party and its odious secret police (Securitate) were arguably the most repressive in the Eastern Bloc (Deletant, 1993), and this greatly undermined the formation of a healthy civil society that could unite to challenge the communist regime. Furthermore, the placement of extremely loyal relatives of the Ceaușescus in key positions prevented influential reformist factions from emerging within the party itself (Ciobanu, 2007, p. 1432). As a result, previously marginalized factions within the party would go on to ride the momentum of the revolution and commandeer the state for themselves, garnering huge amounts of public support in the process.

Following the bloody revolution in December of 1989, the general elections held in 1990 were won overwhelmingly by the National Salvation Front—a preliminary government that had turned into a political party. The Front was headed by former communist Ion Iliescu and staffed with members of the prior regime’s nomenklatura. These former apparatchiks gained considerable advantages over the opposition from their appropriation of the organization and funds from the Romanian Communist Party (Gabanyi, n.d., pp. 9-10). Iliescu’s platform was light on reforms and had many similar aspects to the former communist regime in that it promoted the need for a one-party, consensus-based “original democracy” that was uniquely Romanian and thus distinct from the liberal democracies developing elsewhere in the region (Gledhill and King, 2011, pp. 228-229).

Moreover, a referendum passed in December of 1991 made Romania into a semi-presidential republic with a bicameral parliament whose “legislative role was constantly undermined by the capacity of the executive to pass emergency ordinances with impunity” (Ciobanu, 2007, 1432). The outcome of such a political arrangement was essentially one faction of previously marginalized communists presiding over the state apparatus in a manner that stifled reforms and preserved, to a large extent, its dominance over the opposition. In this manner, Iliescu would go on to rule Romania from 1990 to 1996, and then again from 2000 to 2004. As a result, reforms in Romania were hamstrung for much longer than in, for example, Hungary.

2.2. Reform – Slowly but Surely

Although initially at a huge disadvantage relative to the National Salvation Front (which later changed into the Social Democratic Party), the reformist opposition parties eventually were able to successfully challenge the “palace coup” incumbents. By 1995, a more robust alliance developed between right-wing parties and parties under the Democratic Convention, and together they managed to win the 1996 elections on a reformist platform (Ciobanu, 2009, p. 17). Real change seemed to be in the air, especially since Romania had formally applied for EU membership around that same time. However, the difficulties of having an inexperienced and extremely heterogeneous coalition united mostly in its opposition to Iliescu preside over a corrupt state with a weak economy proved to be too much. The reforms largely failed to be implemented and by the 2000 elections, Iliescu had swept back into power. What is more, the emergence of the far-right Greater Romania Party during the election only added to the tumult. In a twist of irony, this was the same year Romania began negotiations for entering the EU (Freedom House, 2005).

It was not until the 2004 elections that Romanians got a more competent opposition through the liberal center-right coalition known as the Truth and Justice Alliance headed by Traian Băsescu. By that point, although Romania had been making progress towards meeting EU requirements, high levels of corruption (European Commission, 2005, p. 4) and anemic judicial reform (Beers, 2010, p. 36) were still prevalent. Nevertheless, it was under Băsescu’s watch that there was a substantive realignment in Romanian politics (Gledhill and King, 2011, pp. 332-333). As if to underscore the significance of this shift, a few weeks before being granted accession to the E.U., Băsescu presented a 680-page report to the legislature condemning the former communist regime for its criminal nature, much to the chagrin of members of the Greater Romania and Social Democrat parties (Ciobanu, 2007, p. 1429). Still, Băsescu’s rise did not entirely solve the continued problem of Romania’s hybrid political system, and it should be noted that the initial impetus for many E.U.-mandated reforms in Romania in fact predated his election. Today, in the aftermath of the “second wave,” Romania appears to be headed in the right direction despite its politics still being highly polarized between progressive and regressive factions. 

Chapter 3. Concluding Comparisons

Both countries in this research compare and contrast in ways that are and are not responsible for the type of democratic regime each developed after communism. For starters, both are unitary republics, but Hungary’s system of government is parliamentary while Romania’s is based on a semi-presidential system. There appears to be no clear connection between which system a Central or Eastern European country developed and its respective progress in post-communist democratization. If there were such a connection, then Bulgaria, Slovakia and most of the Balkan States—all of which have parliamentary systems with only ceremonial presidents—ought to have transitioned to democracy more smoothly. Contrarily, Lithuania, which has a semi-presidential system, ought to have developed a hybrid regime much like in Romania and Ukraine. As neither of these connections is the case, this section will look beyond simply the presidential-parliamentary divide to what distinguishes the democratic transitions of Hungary and Romania.

As detailed in the previous sections, a crucial distinction between Hungary and Romania is the fact that their former communist regimes were remarkably different. Broadly speaking, following its hardline period after the Hungarian Revolution, the Hungarian communist regime became quite moderate, and this allowed for opposition factions to emerge and later flourish. This moderation also safeguarded the former communists’ position in the emerging democratic system, as they still garnered considerable support from the population. Romania’s communist regime, on the other hand, was extremely hardline right up until the end, with its sultanistic, family-based loyalties quelling reformist factions within the party, and its pervasive secret police crushing emerging popular sentiments within civil society. These differences went on to shape the post-communist systems which emerged in the early 1990s.

As for each state’s respective transition phase(s), both compare in that the former communists were actively involved in shaping the emerging post-communist political order. In the case of Hungary, during negotiations with the opposition, the communists agreed to give up absolute power and pursue broad reforms in exchange for a more consensus-based democracy which utilized a mixed-member majoritarian voting system through which they could still maintain influence. Romania’s case could not have been more different, however, as marginalized communist factions took advantage of popular sentiments during the revolution and commandeered the state apparatus for their own benefit over the outgunned opposition. The instatement of a semi-presidential system based on France’s Fifth Republic allowed those same former communists to override the parliament with executive orders.

In conclusion, although there is no perfect correlation-causation connection across Central and Eastern Europe, Hungary’s consensus-based parliamentary system allowed for a smoother transition to democracy in that country, while Romania’s semi-presidential system allowed the former regime to reassert its control over the state under a democratic guise. While the socialists in Hungary lost power after the first elections, they still were able to come back to power in the next elections. Fortunately, when they did return, the reformist direction of Hungary was maintained. Their smooth transitions in and out of power during the “first wave” set Hungary on a firmly democratic foundation. Romania’s socialists, by contrast, dominated the “first wave” and stifled reforms in the process. This continued well into the “second wave,” when they returned to power in 2000, though it is fair to say that Romania was making slow progress towards joining NATO and the E.U., both thanks in part to and despite the socialists.  In short, Romania’s highly polarized semi-presidential political culture is a testament to its unique communist legacy, just as Hungary’s more consensus-based parliamentary model is a testament to its communist legacy.


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