This is a disturbing book, liable to upset a lot of readers, although for quite different, even contradictory reasons. Supporters of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party will probably not take kindly to the portrait it paints of him as someone “driven by an overwhelming lust for power”.
Opponents of Orbán, however, won’t find too much comfort either, because Lendvai is not sparing in his criticisms of previous governments and leading politicians, and indeed tracks the errors and mistakes that led to Orbán assuming office.
A third set of people, perhaps approaching the book with a more neutral or simply curious mind, might well also be dismayed to find that overall Lendvai, a veteran Hungarian journalist living in Austria for many years, presents a rather dismal analysis of Hungary’s political trajectory since the changes of 1989.
After the regime
This is a relatively short and simply written work but it covers a lot of ground. Almost a quarter of a century has passed since the reburial of Imre Nagy on 16 June 1989. Nagy, a communist, became prime minister during the 1956 Uprising. He was subsequently tried, executed and buried in secret alongside many other victims of the post-1956 repression in a far corner of Budapest’s New Public Cemetery.
The 1989 reburial ceremony in Heroes’ Square attracted tens of thousands of people and was the largest and most symbolic public event of Hungary’s political changes, signifying a positive re-evaluation of the 1956 events and thus undermining the legitimacy of the regime that had been in power for over three decades.
This is where Lendvai’s book begins, at the tail end of the so-called Kádár era, named after János Kádár, political leader from late 1956 to 1988.
Chapter by chapter it then recalls the stages and cycles of change that Hungary has experienced since, concentrating in particular on the different governments formed as a result of the six general elections during 1990 to 2010.
As such, this is a very useful book, providing a brief overview of what has happened on the political front in recent decades.
Critical of most
Few of the leading politicians Lendvai profiles emerge in a positive light. While they all had good points as prime ministers, they all had their own drawbacks and all seem to have failed to get to grips with major economic issues and endemic problems such as corruption and intra-party bickering.
An exception is Gordon Bajnai, who became head of an interim government in April 2009 but who only lasted in office until the next election in May the following year. Lendvai believes he can be credited with actually doing something about the country’s serious economic woes.
One theme of the book concerns the manner in which Viktor Orbán rose to power and in particular the way he has exercised authority since becoming prime minister for the second time in 2010. As Lendvai points out, in the 2010 election only about one-third of the electorate voted for Fidesz (53 per cent of the votes cast in a turnout of 64 per cent).
Yet given the peculiarities of the electoral system, the result was that Orbán ended up with a two-thirds majority in Parliament. This has enabled him to make a large number of sweeping changes virtually at will, affecting many aspects of society from the media to the judiciary. (A separate chapter is devoted to the former.)
They have been radical, centralising changes that, for the most part, were not signalled in advance of the election as part of Fidesz’s proposed programme.
One of the most disturbing phenomena of recent times has been the emergence in public discourse of extreme nationalistic, chauvinistic, anti-Semitic and anti-Roma sentiment, which has occasionally spilled over into violence. Lendvai briefly traces the roots of such sentiment as manifested in Hungary’s 20th-century history. The demons of the past, he argues, have never really been confronted and dealt with, neither in the pre-1989 era nor after.
The book implicitly raises the question as to what extent the use of nationalist rhetoric on the part of prominent politicians has been playing with fire, in effect paving the way, albeit inadvertently, for the popularisation of extreme-right-wing manifestations. Lendvai’s views can easily be surmised. Readers can make up their own minds.
Buy the book
Hungary: Between Democ-racy and Authoritarian-ism
Hardback, 256 pages,
Hurst & Company, 2012