Books

The problem with Hungary

14 October 2017

9:00 AM

14 October 2017

9:00 AM

The name of the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, is on the lips of most left-wing, liberal politicians and intellectuals in Europe. They have adorable tantrums, denouncing him as ‘authoritarian’, ‘autocratic’ or, even uglier, ‘dictatorial’, as they congratulate themselves on their righteousness and courage in speaking out.

A few months ago I visited Budapest. On the way in from the airport I saw several billboards depicting Orbán and his rich chum Lörinc Mészáros, the mayor of Felcsút, Orbán’s home town. Beneath, in large letters, were two words: ‘They Steal’. It seems to me a rather poor autocracy where that sort of thing goes on.

Similarly, Lajos Simicska, a former close colleague of Orbán’s, gave a interview — widely and gleefully reported — in which he referred to Orbán as a geci, the rudest word in the language.

Not many Hungarian prime ministers get a proper write-up in English. In that sense, Orbán has already won. Paul Lendvai’s book is both a profile of the man and a potted history of Hungarian politics since 1989. Unlike most journalists who pass hasty judgment on the country, Lendvai is well-informed. He’s a Hungarian who ended up in Austria in 1957 and did well there in the media.

One should not perhaps hold him accountable for the jacket blurb, which describes Orbán as having ‘undisputed’ and ‘unfettered’ power. That’s simply not true: there is a political opposition; there are courts that rule against the government; there are elections; and, as we’ve seen, there’s plenty of criticism.


But Lendvai is responsible for the book’s contents, which masquerades as a serious, scholarly study: facts and figures abound, and citations and notes are thrown in to add a professorial touch, together with wise words from Hegel, Carlyle and Lord Acton. The author is at pains to show that he’s no hack, but a cultured thinker.

He certainly knows the country and its history, but this, in the end, is a relentless cut-and-paste job, almost entirely reliant on standard Hungarian sources that aren’t available in English. And it’s slyly vicious too. I don’t mind vicious when it’s entertaining, but there is something cowardly about the way Lendvai slips in the knife. We have to wait until page 86 before he refers to Orbán’s ‘seizure of absolute power’ in 2010. He certainly won a landslide victory then, but even with his Godzilla-sized majority he does not have absolute power. As I often tire of explaining, the opposition in Hungary exists — it’s just not very good at its job.

Of course the desirability of Orbán’s preeminence is another matter. Lendvai dutifully repeats the opposition’s smears. First, that Orbán is far right. How odd, then, that he countenances Roma MPs, has outlawed Holocaust denial and has financed the Oscar-winning film Son of Saul about the Auschwitz gas chambers.

Second, that Orbán is Putin’s bitch. The US and the EU essentially did nothing about the Russians after they invaded Ukraine, shot down a civilian airliner and systematically bombed hospitals in Syria. So why should it be up to Hungary (whose Soviet-built nuclear reactor provides half its electricity) and Orbán to slap Putin in the face? Orbán does business with Putin, but he’s in the queue with everyone else.

Lendvai’s sources are all openly anti-Orbán. His bleating about ‘impartiality in the media’ and ‘Enlightenment values’ is rich, coming from a man who, in his youth, was a propagandist for the Stalinist Mátyás Rákosi, and in later years toadied to János Kádár (actually boasting he was Kádár’s favourite western journalist).

The problem in Hungary is the vast polarisation between Orbán’s Fidesz government and the opposition. It’s a sort of civil war of insults. Adult political debate is rarely heard, because both sides swallow their own spin. I don’t doubt that there are those who sincerely equate Orbán with Caligula; and Orbán now seems to believe that if a bird messes his garden, the financier George Soros is behind it.

I know many Fidesz voters, none of them happy. The hubris of wealthy ministers and haughtiness of a large majority are diminishing Orbán’s credibility. Nevertheless, he is poised to win the next election, required within six months. If he completes his term he will be the longest- serving Hungarian prime minister in history. So the EU had better prepare for further torment. Oh, and watch out for more chants of ‘Orbán ate democracy’.

 

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