Revolution (Again) in Hungary

Opposition groups collaborate to break the ongoing stranglehold of political corruption

Paul Lendvai

Paul Lendvai left Hungary in 1956 and is a leading opposition voice | Photo: Zsoka Lendvai

From revolution to revolution, I have watched Hungary evolve over the past half-century. The more dramatic of the two revolutions took place in the autumn of 1956 when a beaten, starved and humiliated subject people of fewer than 10 million souls managed to stare down the brutal might of the Soviet Union.

The more triumphant revolution may be the one unfolding now as Hungary’s divided democratic opposition forces are at last learning to collaborate against the vicious remnants of political corruption inherited from the Communist system.

Today, nominally democratic Hungary is a full member of the European Union as well as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. But the country’s shamelessly success-oriented political and economic elite, mostly hand-picked in the dying days of the Soviet administration, still derives its power and money from connections forged within KISZ, the defunct Communist youth movement.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, aged 49, is an ultra-conservative populist enjoying the tacit support of the Hungarian far-right. He hails from a family of semi-skilled workers that prospered under the Communists and acquired spectacular wealth afterwards during his two stints in power. His second period of rule was secured by a landslide election victory in April 2010 following a sustained campaign of violent street demonstrators.

Orbán’s Fidesz party triumphed at the polls without revealing its legislative programme. Its campaign exploited the frustration and insecurities fed by the world recession in an electorate totally unprepared for the boom/bust cycles of Western capitalism. This was the opportunity seized by Hungary’s neo-Nazis to emerge from the fringes of politics as the nastiest and best organised of their ilk within the 27 EU member countries.


Opposition forces organise

But Orbán’s administration could face defeat in the 2014 elections if the fractured democratic opposition manages to form a single platform. Paul Lendvai, the doyen of European foreign correspondents, and other observers sympathetic to Hungary fear that in that event, the Fidesz administration may still manage to hang on to power by forming a coalition with the far-right.

Lendvai has been based in neighbouring Vienna since the 1956 revolution. Now aged 81 and the editor-in-chief of the Austrian journal Europäische Rundschau, Lendvai is often quoted and consulted by the English and German language press and academia. His new book (Hungary Between Democracy & Authoritarianism, 2012, excerpted in TVR Books, May 2012) is essential reading for anyone concerned with the struggle of the post-Communist world to free itself of the persistent stranglehold of political corruption.

Lendvai is loathed by Orbán, a man made vulnerable by his own political success. Orbán has built an administrative establishment totally subject to his personal control. He has reduced the legislature to a rubber-stamp; in just over two years, he has effectively disabled the essential checks and balances of democratic control.

The centrepiece of the reform is a new constitution passed without cross-party accord and already modified six times. It shirks Hungary’s enduring culpability for the Holocaust and trivialises its significance by equating that crime against all humanity with the subsequent Soviet occupation of this region.

The constitution also drops the word “Republic” from the official name of this country, leaving the door open for Orbán to crown himself king. Seriously.

A long series of new laws and decrees exposes the press to prohibitive fines potentially issued at will by a committee of political appointees, emasculates the judiciary by replacing many independent-minded judges with party hacks, and redraws the constituency boundaries to favour Fidesz.


Hijacking history

To survive, any autocratic, populist regime must focus the hostility of its exploited electorate on real or imagined enemies abroad. Orbán has thus declared a national “freedom struggle”, in the idealised spirit of the 1956 revolution, against such safe targets as the EU, the International Monetary Fund and of course the foreign correspondents.

All this has frightened away foreign investors. The three principal global credit rating agencies have responded by downgrading Hungary’s public debt to junk status.

Lendvai despairs, but I do not. The tyrants of the modern world tend to survive for any significant length of time only when protected by mighty domestic industrial infrastructures or by foreign interests. Orbán enjoys no such support. He is in charge of a weak economy surrounded by neighbours committed to integration with the mature Western democracies.

The Hungarian prime minister is a lonely, frail man, driven and plagued by a fatal attraction to power. His command structure is based on the unquestioning obedience of professional managers prepared to serve any master.

When Orbán inevitably succumbs to the dual pressure of the democratic opposition and the paranoia generated by his own style of administration, his painfully constructed edifice of control must collapse with him.


Thomas Orszag-Land is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent. His next book is entitled The Survivors: Holocaust Poetry for Our Time (Smokestack / England, 2014).

For more on Paul Lendvai, see his contributions to TVR, a review of his book Mein Verspieltes Land, [My Squandered Country] in April 2011 TVR, and his book Inside Austria in June 2010 TVR.

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