Horthy appointed Pal Teleki prime minister in July 1920. His right-wing government set quotas effectively limiting admission of Jews to universities, legalized corporal punishment, and, to quiet rural discontent, took initial steps toward fulfilling a promise of major land reform by dividing about 385,000 hectares from the largest estates into smallholdings. Teleki's government resigned, however, after the former emperor, Karl IV, unsuccessfully attempted to retake Hungary's throne in March 1921. King Karl's return narhed a split parties between conservatives who favored a Habsburg restoration and nationalist right-wing radicals who supported election of a Hungarian king. Bethlen, a nonaffiliated, right-wing member of the parliament, took advantage of this rift by convincing members of the Christian National Union who opposed Karl's reenthronement to merge with the Smallholders' Party and form a new Party of Unity with Bethlen as its leader. Horthy then appointed Bethlen prime minister.
As prime minister, Bethlen dominated Hungarian politics between 1921 and 1931. He fashioned a political machine by amending the electoral law, eliminating peasants from the Party of Unity, providing jobs in the bureaucracy to his supporters, and manipulating elections in rural areas. Bethlen restored order to the country by giving the radical counterrevolutionaries payoffs and government jobs in exchange for ceasing their campaign of terror against Jews and leftists. In 1921 Bethlen made a deal with the Social Democrats and trade unions, agreeing, among other things, to legalize their activities and free political prisoners in return for their pledge to refrain from spreading anti-Hungarian propaganda, calling political strikes, and organizing the peasantry. In May 1922, the Party of Unity captured a large parliamentary majority. Karl IV's death, soon after he failed a second time to reclaim the throne in October 1921, allowed the revision of the Treaty of Trianon to rise to the top of Hungary's political agenda. Bethlen's strategy to win the treaty's revision was first to strengthen his country's economy and then to build relations with stronger nations that could further Hungary's goals. Revision of the treaty had such a broad backing in Hungary that Bethlen used it, at least in part, to deflect criticism of his economic, social, and political policies. However, Bethlen's only foreign policy success was a treaty of friendship with Italy in 1927, which had little immediate impact.
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