Lakitelek: Hungarian Populism Twenty Years Later

Lakitelek is a large village with a population of about 4,000, not far from Kecskemét on the Great Plains. Very little of note happened there–at least not until 1987. In that year, on September 27, in the back yard of Sándor Lezsák, a minor poet, a group of people with an ostensibly laudable political purpose got together. Most of the participants came from the so-called "populist" (népies) wing of the Hungarian intellectual scene: writers, sociologists, lawyers, economists, etc. The "urbanists" (urbánusok) were represented by only one writer, György Konrád, the novelist, whose excellent novel, A látogató (The Case Worker; 1969) brought him worldwide recognition.

First, by way of background, a few words about the populist/urbanist divide. This split among Hungarian intellectuals goes back to the post-World War I period. The populists’ main interest was the countryside, the Hungarian peasant. Populist writers wrote mostly about village life, while populist sociologists gave detailed descriptions of rural poverty. Politically they were a mixed bag: some of them ended up in the far-right camp in the late 1930s and 1940s, others became communists after 1945. The urbanists, as their name indicates, were city folks, often Jewish and politically liberal. I personally favor the urban camp and found populist literature, even as a teenager, distasteful. Most likely because the few trips I made as a child to villages south of Pécs could be associated only with backwardness, primitive circumstances, lack of proper plumbing, and mud, mud, mud. General hopelessness. Even as a teenager I knew that this was not the way to go. My prejudices against the populists have only been reinforced since my youth. After 1956, the populists made a deal with Kádár shortly after the failure of the revolution, while the urbanists sat in jail. And the political careers of those populists who gathered in Lakitelek can probably still be (politely) associated with "mud, mud, mud."

But let’s go back to 1987. This was the year when the serious problems of the regime came to the surface and the party leadership decided that something had to be done. Changes had to be made. During the summer, Károly Grósz became prime minister, and he envisaged some kind of accommodation with the growing opposition. He imagined that perhaps within the one-party dictatorship there could be a group of people who "think differently" but don’t act as an opposition. Therefore their existence could be legalized. This was to be called "reform pluralism."

The populists wanted to take advantage of this reform. They organized a meeting at Lakitelek to establish an organization protected by reform pluralism. They invited Grósz, but he decided not to attend. He advised his liaison with the populists, Imre Pozsgay, a minister in the Grósz cabinet, to do likewise. But Pozsgay didn’t heed his advice; he actually wanted to forge an alliance between the party/government/state and the populists.

At this 1987 meeting speakers dwelt on traditional populist themes but with an increasingly sharp, politically vituperative edge. As always, they idealized the Hungarian countryside and painted a grim picture of the poverty of the villages. But they also talked about the moral crisis, the "people’s spine that has been bent," the "emigration of the rural intellectuals." Budapest, it was claimed, is a foreign contaminant in the body of the nation.

So who, among today’s cast of characters, took part in this meeting twenty years ago? István  Csurka, future secretary of the right-radical antisemitic MIÉP; Lajos Für, former minister of defense in the Antall government, who recently made a speech at the swearing-in ceremony of the Hungarian Guard; Sándor Csoóri, poet, who for a while was head of the right-wing World Federation of Hungarians and who came up with the March Charter, a hodge-podge of intellectual and political nonsense; Zoltán Bíró, who recently claimed that József Antall was a communist agent; and many other people who are currently on the far right.

Although for a while Lakitelek was synonymous with the MDF, one can be sure that none of today’s MDF leaders will be present at the twentieth anniversary. In the wake of Lakitelek the MDF (Magyar Demokrata Fórum) emerged as the mass opposition party where moderate right of center people like József Antall mingled with István Csurka of decidedly right radical tendencies. (This was a variation of the foreign policy doctrine that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend.") Everybody wanted to see an end to the regime (although, let me add that the MDF was more ready for a compromise, somewhat similar to the Polish suggestion that power could perhaps be shared with the communists).

Then came the real change of regime, and it became obvious that there were huge differences not just between the urbanists who joined the SZDSZ (Szabad Democraták Szövetsége; Alliance of Free Democrats) and the populists who gathered in the MDF but among members of the MDF themselves. First, Csurka left and established his own party. The MDF was so badly defeated in 1994 that it was virtually decimated. In 1998 it could get into parliament only with the help of the Fidesz. Yet another blow to the MDF was the departure of Sándor Lezsák and his like-minded followers who were against Ibolya Dávid’s independent course. Lezsák and his friends first became independent and now are members of the Fidesz caucus.

The "highlight" of this anniversary gathering is that Viktor Orbán will be there! This is really funny. It was Orbán and his friends who kept repeating in those days that they are the Belgians, neither French nor Flemish. Neither populists nor urbanists. Well, it seems that, after all, one cannot be Belgian, especially if his heart is with the nationalism and right-wing sentiments of the populists.

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Orban is going to Lakitelek? Back in Novemeber 1989 the SZDSZ and FIDESZ drafted a public referendum based on four questions regarding the process of elections (such as should any party, such as the MSZMP, be allowed to maintain their own armed militias, should they be allowed to operate [political offices in work places, etc.) The MDF officially boycotted the referendum. [] The MDF lost a lot of support to the SZDSZ in the face of that boycott, which they only regained in January 1990 with the infamous radio speech by actor and MDF spokeperson Sinkovits Imre in which he libeled SZDSZ leaders as recieving their campaign funds from Israel and New York.
The Lakitelek meetings were filmed by the then SZDSZ-friendly Pesty Black Box film squad, a video company that documented much of the 1989 changes. Subsequently, their three hour edited documentary of the Lakitelek meetings was never allowed to be shown publicly or on TV during the MDF years in power. Subsequenly, however, László Pesty drifted to the right wing views of FIDESZ, and he is now one of FIDESZ chief media advisors and ran Tarlos Istvan’s mayoral campaign last year.


Pardon, that was a sloppy source link, it should link to a documnet from the University of Liverpool’s School of History. The “Four Yes’s” Referendum is mentioned on page 4 in: Nigel Swain: Hungary – Political Developments 1989-90, Autumn 1991

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