Tainted Democracy

Viktor Orbán and the Subversion of Hungary

November 2022 9781787388024 352pp
Available as an eBook
EU Customers


Hungary, once the poster-child of liberal democracy, is fast becoming an autocracy under Viktor Orbán. After winning an absolute majority in 2010, Orbán launched a series of ‘reforms’, fundamentally undermining the country’s twenty-year, post-Cold War liberal consensus. For supporters and foes alike, the rise and rise of Hungary’s prime minister is a vivid example of how democracy can be subverted from within.

Zsuzsanna Szelényi, a leading member of Orbán’s Fidesz in its early years, has witnessed first-hand the party’s shift from liberalism to populist nationalism. Offering an insider’s account of Fidesz’s evolution since its creation, she explains how the party rose to leadership of the country under Orbán and made sweeping legal, political and economic changes to solidify its grip on power—from reining in the public media to slashing the number of parliamentary seats. She answers a key question: why has Orbán been so successful, winning widespread support within Hungary and wielding considerable influence in European politics? And how can Hungary’s opposition party Together, which she co-founded in 2014, work to turn the country around?

Underpinned by Szelényi’s own experiences at the heart of Hungarian politics, Tainted Democracy offers accessible, nuanced insights into the global rise of populist autocracy—and how it can be challenged.


Zsuzsanna Szelényi, Maria Ressa and Simon Schama explore the cost of speaking truth to power on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week programme:

Listen to Zsuzsanna Szelényi’s interview on New Statesman‘s World Review podcast:

Zsuzsanna Szelényi in conversation with RevDem editor Ferenc Laczó about the main characteristics of the Orbán regime and Hungary’s descent into autocracy:

‘There is much illuminating detail… in Tainted Democracy by Zsuzsanna Szelényi. Read her book — you may learn a lot.’ — Tony Barber, Financial Times

‘[A] masterly new study of the rise of Fidesz and Orbán. Szelényi’s Tainted Democracy … is detailed and thorough. It offers a rigorous account of how Orbán bent an initially liberal party to his will, and how he and his acolytes have subverted institution after institution.’ — Times Literary Supplement

‘Detailed and authoritative.’ — London Review of Books

‘A powerfully written, insider account of the transformation of Fidesz from a liberal group of “Young Democrats” opposing authoritarianism to an anti-liberal group of middle-aged opponents of liberal democracy, and of Orbán himself from a charismatic tribune of freedom to a fervent proponent of “traditional Christian family values” and “Magyar Greatness.”’ — Los Angeles Review of Books

‘Hungary’s trajectory in the past decade under President Viktor Urban illustrates how right-wing populist nationalism can erode liberal democracy from within. Szelenyi describes that slide with balance, detail, and compelling authority… for readers seeking a balanced analysis of Hungary’s recent political evolution, this is the one.’ — Foreign Affairs

‘[Tainted Democracy] is packed with information demonstrating how democracy has been thoroughly dismantled and meaningful opposition stifled.’ — Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs

‘Offers a compellingly cautionary tale. … [Tainted Democracy] is a complicated, yet fascinating, story about how Orbán and Simicska built parallel, interlocking political and economic empires.’ — Survival

‘Probably the best account both of Orbán’s career and of Orbánism as a political system … essential reading for anyone concerned about the threat to democracy posed by those enemies who are at once malicious and astute.’ — American Purpose

‘If you are interested in the gloomy fate of modern Hungary, illiberalism and how a European country can be subverted from the inside, then this is the book for you. Zsuzsanna Szelényi has lived and breathed Hungarian politics for more than thirty years which means that this is the right book, written at the right time, by the right person.’ — Tim Judah, Special Correspondent for The Economist, and author of In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine

‘Szelényi’s insider account relates with forensic detail how Orbán—inspired by Berlusconi and Putin—captured Hungarian voters and, in the process, enriched himself and his cronies at the expense of Hungarian democracy. This is a sobering but absolutely essential narrative of aborted democracy in a country that once held such promise.’ — Kati Marton, journalist, and author of The Chancellor

‘This compelling book is about how Viktor Orbán systematically subverted democratic institutions to build a corrupt and nepotistic system while EU leaders turned a blind eye to Hungary’s hijacked transformation.’ — Judy Dempsey, Editor-in-Chief of Strategic Europe, Carnegie Europe

‘A cautionary tale for the whole of Europe. With unrivalled insight and precious autobiographical detail, Zsuzsanna Szelényi traces Hungary’s descent into authoritarianism under Viktor Orbán.’ — Dimitar Bechev, Lecturer in Russian and East European Studies, University of Oxford, and author of Turkey Under Erdoğan: How a Country Turned from Democracy and the West

‘A definitive insider’s account of how Viktor Orbán dismantled Hungarian democracy and replaced it with an autocratic and profoundly corrupt regime. Szelényi’s vivid chronicle will leave readers aghast but forewarned–saddened by the lost promise of 1989 in Hungary but better equipped to recognise any erosion of democracy in their own countries.’ — R. Daniel Kelemen, Professor of Political Science & Law and Jean Monnet Chair in European Union Politics, Rutgers University

Zsuzsanna Szelényi interviewed on The Monocle Daily about how Viktor Orbán has subverted Hungarian democracy:



Zsuzsanna Szelényi is a Hungarian politician and foreign policy specialist. In the 1990s, she was an activist and MP for Fidesz, then a liberal anti-Communist party. After working at the Council of Europe for fifteen years, she returned to politics in 2012, representing the liberal opposition in Parliament.

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