In the spring of 1994, when Viktor Orban was the leader of a small, nominally liberal opposition youth party named Fidesz, he sat down with foreign journalists one evening to give his views on politics in Hungary.
It was just prior to only the second free national election since the change of regime. Relaxing over a beer at the end of the session, the country-born, one-time anti-Communist student activist was asked for his feelings about the Hungarian capital city. The answer was candidly blunt: “I don”t like Budapest,” he retorted.
Fast forward to October 2019 – through a period encompassing 13 years of prime ministerial rule by Orban – and Budapest residents told Orban what they thought of his governance, rejecting the Fidesz-backed incumbent for the position of mayor and electing a 44-year old political scientist and district mayor named Gergely Karacsony with almost 51% of the vote.
This result, along with a strong showing by opposition candidates in municipal elections in Budapest’s 23 districts and in several larger cities across the country, was the first major setback for Orban since his sweeping victory in the 2010 parliamentary elections, when Fidesz’s 53% of the vote won him 68% of seats in the national parliament.
Karacsony, though a co-president of the small, liberal-green Dialogue party, effectively had the backing of all principal opposition groups. His down to earth, straight-talking approach had proved more effective in a cosmopolitan capital that has turned weary after 11 years of Orban.
Somewhat surprisingly, though perhaps because of a temporary state of shock, the normally pugnacious Orban was initially conciliatory, even promising to halt a massive, museum development project in Budapest’s City Park, one of the prime minister’s favourite schemes that Karacsony had pledged to thwart in his election manifesto.
But even if, as mayor, Karacsony has very limited real power, in terms of public profile the position ranks second only to that of the prime minister, and for the PR-conscious Orban, that made him a genuine threat.
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic saw Orban — after declaring a state of emergency — claim that he wanted to help reduce the usage of public transport, declared parking to be free, thus destroying a significant revenue source for local councils.
Municipalities were also ordered to freeze prices of services, yet were allotted additional tasks to handle because of the pandemic. Meanwhile, instead of cooperation, the City Council met a stonewall when it came to coordinating with the government, according to Karacsony.
“After being elected mayor of Budapest, I did my best to create a partnership with the government, despite our political differences, but this proved unsuccessful. In the wake of the pandemic and associated economic problems it became clear that the government considers us to be competitors and not partners,” Karacsony told the foreign press corps earlier this year.
And though the government has lifted the moratorium on car parking fees, its restrictions on local taxation have left the city losing 40% of its budgeted income and facing insolvency later this year, the mayor says.
Yet the Karacsony-led council has doggedly fought back, if only in symbolic fashion. This summer, after it transpired that the government was intent on using land earlier earmarked for affordable student accommodation to house the first overseas campus for the Chinese Fudan University, Karacsony and the local district mayor swung into action, renaming one thoroughfare Dalai Lama Street and another Uygur Martyrs’ Road in protest, much to the ire of the Chinese authorities.
Over the next few weeks, the mayor is in another more gentlemanly contest between five nominees of the six-party opposition alliance. Keen to oust Orban, they are uniting to have one candidate to challenge him in next spring’s parliamentary election.
Standing as the joint candidate of the Dialogue-Socialist parties, in the first stages of these “primary” elections, most polls (which are tentative, at best) have Karacsony trailing Klara Dobrev, an MEP with the liberal-left Democratic Coalition and wife of former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, by a few percentage points.
But with voting expected to go into a second round in early October, many see Dobrev as too divisive and feel Karacsony would make for a better compromise PM candidate, better able to motivate conservatives disaffected with Fidesz to go to the polls next year.
Karacsony himself is taking this line, concluding the first of two televised debates between the five hopefuls that he is “the best able to unite Hungary and attract undecided voters”.
In rhetoric, at least, he is the precise opposite of Orban, insisting that, under his cabinet, the country would seek to work wherever possible as one voice with Brussels on foreign and domestic policy, and examine the viability of Orban’s most expensive and secretive projects, including the new rail link with Belgrade (financed by Chinese capital) and the Russian-designed nuclear power plant at the town of Paks, largely financed by loans from Moscow.
“Even energy experts who favour nuclear energy have concerns about this investment. … according to Hungarian historical experience, where there are secret clauses in contracts, this is very worrisome,” he says.
But can he win the opposition primaries to even stand a chance of beating Orban next spring?
“We know that Karácsony is very good at this primary campaign situation, he knows what tone to use, who to speak to and the like. He has experience from 2019 [in the mayoral election] that no other candidate has, which could be a huge advantage,” says Andrea Virag, director of Republikon Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank, adding:
“Nevertheless, Dobrev and Jakab [the Jobbik candidate] are in the lead right now. Karacsony will need all his experience and creativity to make up for the disadvantage for the lack of a big-party support, which Jakab and Dobrev have.”
A spokesperson for the Hungarian government told Euronews: “Please note that free parking was abolished in Hungary on 23 May 2021. It has been in effect in the entire territory of Hungary as part of our joint fight against the pandemic to reduce crowding on public transport.
“In addition, we must not forget that it was the government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán that had decided after 2010 to assume loan liabilities and paid the debt of HUF 1360bn (€4.9bn at the then rate of approx HUF 280 per euro) of more than two thousand local governments – including, of course, Budapest.
“The government looks upon the capital’s new leadership as a partner, we don’t want to comment on the allegations what we could just call “The Gyurcsány Show” (editor’s note: Ferenc Gyurcsány is a former PM of Hungary) and its intricacies, phenomena and statements.”
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