Lendvai, born Lendvai Pál in Hungary in 1929, left his native land for Austria after the 1956 Uprising. Almost 200,000 Hungarians fled the Soviet reprisal. He is now 88 years old. His previous writings have made him a nagging thorn in Orbán’s side, resulting in smear campaigns in the Fidesz media. Others, less biased, might argue that Hungary’s loss is Austria’s gain.

Still, little wonder he is attacked by those with most to lose, as Lendvai believes that Orbán “has contributed more than any other Hungarian politician since 1989 to the disastrous political, moral, economic and cultural polarisation of Hungarian society”.

His latest book details how Orbán, born in 1963 and thus still only 54 years old, has proved to be the ablest and most controversial politician in modern Hungarian history, not only shaping events in Hungary but also playing a major role in European politics. He was the youngest prime minister in Europe in 1998-2002, an early taste for power that has now determined him to rule Hungary as the undisputed number one since his two overwhelming election victories in 2010 and 2014.

The young Orbán lived in a dilapidated house and he and his siblings had to work hard in the fields, pulling beets, sorting potatoes, collecting corn cobs and feeding the pigs and chickens. There was no running water, and hot water had to be heated in a tin pot on the gas stove. But he was able to be accepted at a distinguished grammar school.

During military service the omnipresent secret services tried to win over Orbán as an informant but he turned down the offer. Years later, in 2005, a press report about the incident led him to publish a document from the archives confirming that the attempt had been unsuccessful.

At Bibó István Special College, where Orbán was enrolled, a great deal was owed to the active support of the Hungarian-born multimillionaire George Soros, who from 1986 promoted the college and generously subsidised its politically active students, allowing it to become an island of autonomy and self-determination.

On March 30, 1988 at Bibó István, Orbán and 36 other law and economics students founded the Alliance of Young Democrats (Fiatal Demokraták Szövetseége, or Fidesz) as an independent youth organisation. It was a bold move in a country still ruled by the communist regime of János Kádár.

None of the group, all in their mid-20s, could have thought then that they were establishing what has evolved into perhaps the most successful political party in Hungarian history. As Lendvai continues, there were two prerequisites for membership: the age limit was fixed between 16 and 35, and membership of the Hungarian Youth Communist League was prohibited.

As is well documented, Orbán made his debut in public life in Heroes Square, Budapest, on June 16, 1989, at the monumental funeral service for the five martyrs of 1956. The political sensation of the day was the speech of the completely unknown man with a beard, Orbán, 26 years old, demanding an end to the communist dictatorship, free elections and the withdrawal of Russian troops.

From April 1988 Orbán had worked part-time for Soros’ Open Society Foundation, and with a grant from the foundation, moved in September 1989 to Pembroke College, Oxford, to undertake a nine-month research project on the idea of civil society in European political philosophy. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening up of Hungary later that year, Orbán abandoned his studies at Oxford and was elected in 1990 as a Fidesz MP.

Untroubled by any sense of scruple”, as Lendvai puts it, Orbán seized total control over the party. But in May 1994 Fidesz suffered a heavy election setback, and it soon turned out that the liberalism of Orbán and his closest friends had been little more than a thin veneer. They turned their back on this inconvenient ideology in favour of nationalist, right-wing politics. The volte-face saw the erstwhile rebels, who had once been bearded and casually clothed, dressing conservatively” and with neat hair.

Fidesz, once the left-wing opposition to a right-wing government reversed position when the government was overwhelmingly socialist and left-liberal. As Lendvai observes, it is a political cynicism that respects values only as long as they do not clash with interests.

He recounts a barely known but telling story from a Polish biographer of Orbán, in which the budding autocrat has seen the spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West” at least 15 times. The film is about a heroic and ruthless defeat of an enemy, mirroring a similar desire in Orbán. Hungary’s own hero”, depending on the situation, considers politics a mixture of a western and a football match.

And so to 1998, when Fidesz won the election and its 35-year-old leader became the youngest in Hungary’s history. Orbán would lose power in 2002 to a liberal coalition government, but a catalogue of dramatic political and economic events – including the 2007-08 financial crisis and the spectacular downfall of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány – ended a long opposition and enabled Fidesz to make a spectacular comeback in 2010.

For the first time in the history of democratic Hungary, a political party achieved a two-thirds majority. The epochal election triumph, repeated in 2014, left Orbán voicing his hope for the creation of a central political force field” in which a huge conservative party, ie Fidesz, could rule freely and unhindered by any opposition for the coming 15 to 20 years”.

Orbán has aggressively assumed the leadership role, unwilling to delegate decision-making. A small group of 10 to 20 former students, who have known each other for about 30 years, occupies key positions. Apart from Orbán, János Áder is state President and László Kövér is Speaker of the National Assembly. The core of power is formed by this band of friends who have been together since young men.

It is due to their unreserved personal loyalty to Orbán, and not because of any particular talents, that they have risen to key positions in government, the administration and the economy. And, as Lendvai points out, the Orbán regime has both quantitatively and qualitatively far exceeded the mismanagement and corrupt networks of the state bureaucracy during the years of the Socialist-Free Democrat governments of 2002-10.

These eight years, as described by Lendvai, had frequently been mired in sleaze, cronyism and political corruption. It was, he says, a “disgusting snake pit of old communists and leftwing careerists posing as social democrats”.

And so Hungary entered another era. Now there is no longer any meaningful discussion, as there would be in other democratic countries, about whether and when this government could be replaced in an election. The Orbán regime cannot be defeated under normal” circumstances by any free and fair election in the foreseeable future.

Fidesz has changed the constitution and systematically dismantled democratic institutions, including the Constitutional Court, and trampled on the free press. There is ample evidence that the new strongman of Hungary will not be held back on his path towards an authoritarian order, neither by the political opposition nor by a functioning civil society. The bastion of power elaborately constructed since 2010 is, as far as it is humanly possible to tell, impregnable to external assault.

Orbán cocks a snook at the EU with small regard for its principles and values, and he cosies up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It is all laid bare by Paul Lendvai. His book is sobering reading and its telling of the widespread corruption in Fidesz and the Orbán family is carefully researched. After laying down his brief to be truthful and dispassionate, he succeeds admirably.

Loading Conversation

The news that made headlines

The Brief History of the Week

Geschrieben von BT

Presenting in one concise package the week’s most important and fascinating national stories,…

ComiX Coffee in District V

Inmates running the asylum?

Geschrieben von Attila Leitner

Briton Ben Innes became the very definition of cool on Tuesday. In case you missed this, the…

Protests, no apologies as government-teachers dispute widens

Fight of the roundtables

Geschrieben von BT

The civil public education platform representing the teachers’ movement, which calls itself an…