In the spring of 1994, when Viktor Orban was the leader of a small, nominally liberal opposition youth party called Fidesz, he sat down one evening with foreign journalists to give his take on politics in Hungary.
It was just before the second free national election since regime change. Relaxing over a beer at the end of the session, the former anti-Communist student activist from the country was asked about his feelings about the Hungarian capital. The response was frankly: “I don’t like Budapest,” he retorted.
Fast forward to October 2019 – through a 13-year period of the prime minister’s reign by Orban – and the people of Budapest told Orban what they thought of his governance, dismissing the incumbent Fidesz-backed president for the post of mayor and electing a 44-year-old politician. scientist and district mayor named Gergely Karacsony with nearly 51% of the vote.
This result, coupled with a strong performance by opposition candidates in municipal elections in all 23 districts of Budapest and in several major cities across the country, was Orban’s first major setback since his landslide victory in the 2010 parliamentary elections, when Fidesz held 53% of the vote won it 68% of the seats in the national parliament.
Karacsony, although co-chair of the small Liberal-Green Dialogue party, actually had the support of all the major opposition groups. His down-to-earth and outspoken approach had proven to be most effective in a cosmopolitan capital that grew bored after 11 years of Orban.
Surprisingly enough, but perhaps due to a temporary state of shock, the normally pugnacious Orban was at first conciliatory, even promising to stop a large museum development project in the municipal park of Budapest, one of the prime minister’s favorite projects that Karacsony pledged to thwart in his election manifesto.
But even if, as mayor, Karacsony has very limited real power, in terms of public visibility, the position is superior to that of Prime Minister, and for Orban, concerned with public relations, that makes him a real threat.
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic saw Orban – after declaring a state of emergency – claiming he wanted to help reduce the use of public transport, declared free parking, thus destroying an important source of income for local councils.
Municipalities have also been ordered to freeze prices for services, but have been given additional tasks to manage due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, instead of cooperating, the city council encountered an obstacle 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 it turned out to be unsuccessful. As a result of the pandemic and associated economic problems, it has become clear that the government sees us as competitors and not partners, ”Karacsony told the foreign press earlier this year.
And although the government lifted the moratorium on parking fees, its restrictions on local taxation left the city to lose 40% of its budgeted revenue and face insolvency later this year, the mayor said.
Yet the council led by Karacsony struggled fiercely, if only symbolically. This summer, after it became clear that the government intended to use land previously earmarked for affordable student housing to house the first overseas campus of China’s Fudan University, Karacsony and the mayor of the local district took action, renaming one thoroughfare to Dalai Lama Street and another. Uygur Martyrs’ Road in protest, much to the chagrin of the Chinese authorities.
Over the next few weeks, the mayor is in another more gentlemanly contest between five candidates from the six-party opposition alliance. Eager to oust Orban, they unite to have a candidate who will challenge him in the legislative elections next spring.
As a common candidate of the Dialogue-Socialist parties, in the early stages of these “primary” elections, most polls (which are provisional at best) have Karacsony behind Klara Dobrev, a liberal Left Democratic Coalition MEP and wife of former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, by a few percentage points.
But with the vote set for a second round in early October, many see Dobrev as too confrontational and believe Karacsony would make a better compromise PM candidate, better able to motivate disgruntled Fidesz conservatives to go to the polls next year.
Karacsony himself takes this line, concluding the first of two televised debates between the five hopes that he is “best able to unite Hungary and attract undecided voters”.
Rhetorically, at least, he is the exact opposite of Orban, insisting that under his cabinet the country would seek to work as much as possible with one voice with Brussels on foreign and domestic policy, and would examine the viability of Orban’s most expensive and secretive. projects, including the new rail link to Belgrade (financed by Chinese capital) and the Russian-designed nuclear power plant in the city of Paks, largely financed by loans from Moscow.
“Even energy experts who favor nuclear power are worried about this investment. … according to the Hungarian historical experience, where there are secret clauses in contracts, it is very worrying, ”he says.
But can he win the opposition primaries for a chance to beat Orban next spring?
“We know Karácsony is very good in this primary campaign situation, he knows what tone to use, who to talk to etc. He has had experience since 2019 [in the mayoral election] that no other candidate has, which could be a huge advantage, ”said Andrea Virag, director of the Republikon Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank, adding:
“Nevertheless, Dobrev and Jakab [the Jobbik candidate] are currently in the lead. Karacsony will need all of his experience and creativity to make up for the lack of support from the major parties, which Jakab and Dobrev have. “
A Hungarian government spokesperson told Euronews: “Please note that free parking was abolished in Hungary on May 23, 2021. It is in effect throughout Hungary as part of our joint fight against the pandemic to reduce overcrowding in public transport.
“In addition, we must not forget that it was the government headed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who decided after 2010 to assume the debts of the loan and paid the debt of HUF 1360 billion (4.9 billion d (euros at the rate of around 280 HUF per euro at the time) from more than two thousand local authorities – including, of course, Budapest.
“The government considers the new leadership of the capital as a partner, we do not want to comment on the allegations that we could simply call ‘The Gyurcsány Show” (editor’s note: Ferenc Gyurcsány is a former Prime Minister of Hungary) and its intricacies, phenomena and statements.
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