Doubts on the Danube

Hungary: Between Democracy and Authoritarianism, by Paul Lendvai, C Hurst & Co, RRP£25, 288 pages

Until recently it seemed that while the EU’s new member states faced economic challenges on the arduous road to convergence with western Europe, their commitment to the EU’s political values was never in doubt. The victory of democracy after decades of one-party rule in eastern Europe was regarded as permanent.

Hungary is now testing this assumption to the limit. The country that a decade ago saw itself as a leader of post-communist transition has become the first of the new member states to see its commitment to democratic principles come under scrutiny.

In the eyes of many critics, Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s conservative prime minister, is constructing an authoritarian state on the banks of the Danube. Furthermore, he is building it on rocky economic foundations: the country is heavily in debt and its economic policies are under fire from the EU and the International Monetary Fund. The risk of political and economic turmoil is very real.

The case against Orbán is set out with great passion in Hungary: Between Democracy and Authoritarianism. In Paul Lendvai’s view, Orbán is “a master tactician, a gifted populist, a radical and consummate opportunist, and a ruthless power politician who believes not in ideas but in maximising his power without any compunction, giving vent to Hungarian nationalism or tapping into fear and prejudice at a moment of crisis”. He calls Orbán’s Fidesz “a charismatic ‘Fuhrer’ party”. This is gloves-off political writing at its best.

Orbán came to prominence as a radical liberal student leader in the dying days of communism. But he soon realised that while the liberals in post-communist Europe had the best ideas, they had little support outside urban elites.

So the opportunistic Orbán headed to the right and built up a formidable conservative-clerical-nationalist power base infused with more than a touch of xenophobia.

Backed by a two-thirds parliamentary majority, he has rewritten the constitution, increased state control of the media and the courts, and reorganised parliament and constituencies in favour of his ruling right-wing Fidesz party. As European Commission president José Manuel Barroso has said: “There are concerns about the quality of democracy in Hungary.”

Lendvai is a somewhat controversial figure in Hungary. A Jewish survivor of the Nazi terror, he joined the Communist party and became a journalist before fleeing to the west after the failed 1956 anti-Communist uprising. He settled in Vienna, where he worked as a correspondent – including for the Financial Times – and later as a senior editor in Austrian state broadcasting.

In this book he tries hard to be fair. The Socialists are justifiably blamed for paving the way for Orbán’s triumph, thanks to corruption and incompetence – especially in economic management. Lendvai rightly puts Orbán in the context of Hungary’s dark 20th-century history – the 1920 Trianon treaty, when Hungary lost a huge chunk of territory, the 1930s dictatorship, collaboration with the Nazis, the legacy of 1956, and the awkwardly incomplete end of communist rule. Neither the political right nor the left come out of this story with much credit.

But he is surely correct to say that it is Orbán who is largely responsible for taking the dangerous road on which Hungary is now travelling. His huge 2010 victory gave him an opportunity to reach out to enemies, pursue inclusive policies and create a consensus for serious economic reforms and for securing backing from the EU and IMF. Instead, Orbán has gone for conflict and division, and adopted populist economic policies that are viewed sceptically by the EU, the IMF and the markets.

Lendvai’s book is not the final word on Orbán. But it is a convincing indictment of the most powerful political figure in the eastern EU.

Stefan Wagstyl is the FT’s emerging markets editor

This article is subject to a correction and has been amended.

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