The new mayor of Budapest has shown us how to defeat authoritarian populists like Viktor Orban

Karácsony’s outstanding victory shows how local politics can be made national, and how a scattered opposition can draw together

Umut Korkut
Monday 14 October 2019 14:30 BST
Budapest skyline by night
Budapest skyline by night

Budapest has a new mayor, an event which rarely troubles the international press. But this time around it has confirmed how Europe can reject the invidious influence of populist, neo-authoritarian governments with an inclusive platform that pulls opposition together. The lessons for the continent, and indeed for Brexit, are inescapable.

Eastern Europe has been here before: 30 years ago the dissidence against communism also won based on similar platforms that brought together a plethora of political forces, from conservative democrats to environmentalists. They may not last, but these alliances pushed aside authoritarian governments and opened up space for a new form of politics in the long-run.

Gergely Karácsony’s victory in Budapest echoes that of Ekrem Imamoğlu in Istanbul, and the earlier win in Warsaw by Rafal Trzaskowski. Simply put, opposition platforms can displace neo-authoritarian parties in major cities.

This is despite the all-encroaching propaganda machines that Fidesz in Hungary and AKP in Turkey have put in place. They have delivered an assaults on freedom of expression thanks to an almost full control of print media, changes in electoral systems to guarantee majorities as well as populist distributive techniques to consolidate their voter base. However, no one can permanently guarantee votes with a sack of free potatoes or coal.

Karácsony’s outstanding victory shows the shift in the centre of politics from national to local. Yet, he also deserves plaudits for making the governance of Budapest a national question. In this way, he managed to dispel the long-standing Fidesz notion that Budapest is a renegade in the nation.

While those who oppose the government can lose hope in their efforts to affect national politics after so many rounds of defeats, they are coming to realise that change can start at the very local and inform the national. This is a particularly new form of governance.

The voters in Hungary have moved away from what is, at times, obscure ideological politics. Fidesz’s propaganda since 2015 has exploited the sudden increase in the number of migrants arriving in Europe, and made a general claim that only Fidesz can represent the nation. That idea, that if Fidesz loses then the nation loses, now has an expiry date.

The citizens of Budapest and other major Hungarian cities, where the opposition won such as Szeged, Miskolc, Pécs and even smaller cities such as Eger and Ózd, showed their preference for politics that gives hope and activates rather than politics that scares and pacifies.

Thanks to a remarkable alliance across all opposition forces, aiming to remove Fidesz from their cities while making politics less ideological and with more tangible goals, hope has been restored.

Of course, it is not over yet. The turnout was still low in mid-50 per cent. And in many other cities local councils remain predominantly under Fidesz control. The victorious opposition platforms are composed of a plethora of political parties and forums ranging all the way from ultra-nationalist Jobbik to urban youth activists that gather under the Hungarian Two-tailed dog party.

Karácsony has the charisma and the majority at the local council to keep this platform in Budapest intact. However, whether the opposition coalition can evolve into a consolidated movement to remove Fidesz in less than two years at the national election is not certain. In other cities, where the opposition mayors have to work with Fidesz-dominated councils, maintaining the coherence of their platforms will be more difficult.

Fidesz has been defeated before, in strongholds such as Veszprém and Hódmezõvásárhély in local by-elections. But this did not evolve into an opposition victory at 2018 national election.

Karácsony and the other opposition mayors must act quickly to start exposing suspected corruption, in particular in the distribution of EU funds for major infrastructure projects. The EU anti-corruption authority OLAF has shown how several Hungarian councils allegedly rigged EU-funds in favour of Orbán’s son-in-law to win 30 public tenders to renew city lights.

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Moreover, the opposition will now be in charge of the 1st District of Budapest, where Budapest Castle sits. This district allegedly saw Fidesz politicians and close associates appropriating prime real estate at prices significantly lower than the market.

What will be at stake from now is the sustainability of the opposition platform towards the national election in 2020 and the skills of the newly-elected mayor to entrench their politics at the local level to wage an impact on national politics. They are facing a double-edged sword as they need not only to fight against the Fidesz machine but also trigger a major restructuring of the opposition parties to create a viable, homogenous machine that can deliver sustained success.

Umut Korkut is a professor of international politics at Glasgow Caledonian University and leads Hungarian research for the Horizon 2020 RESPOND project.

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