Change is coming to Central Europe as liberal-leaning mayors challenge their more autocratic-minded national governments. And Budapest’s Gergely Karacsony is looking to Vienna for inspiration.
When Gergely Karacsony won the Budapest mayoral election in 2019 he delivered Hungary’s autocratic prime minister Viktor Orbán his first significant defeat. Orbán has promised to make Hungary an “illiberal” state but his candidate, the nominally independent septuagenarian conservative Istvan Tarlos, in office for a decade, was roundly defeated.
Karacsony, 44, a pro-European centre-leftist and former political scientist, was backed by a coalition of parties across the political spectrum. He is riding a national and regional wave. Opposition candidates running on a joint slate triumphed in local elections across the country, taking control of 10 out of 23 cities, setting themselves up well for the next national election, due in 2022. The pushback against illiberal leaders is happening across Central Europe. Opposition mayors now run Warsaw, Prague and Bratislava, as well as Budapest. “We want to get closer to Europe and to European values,” says Karacsony.
For mayors across the former Habsburg empire, Vienna is a model city. And that’s certainly the case for Karacsony. “Our relationship with Vienna has always been important and I hope it will be even more so in the future. We are looking at Vienna as a modern city. We want to follow the examples they have in social policy and public transport.” Backed by a youthful and dynamic team, he is optimistic that change is within reach.
Was it a surprise when you won?
It was not. I knew my opponent quite well and I knew that, deep inside, his whole heart was not in it. He was not really fighting 100 per cent.
What lessons do opposition candidates need to learn?
First, nobody going alone will be successful; the opposition needs a joint candidate and joint platform. Second, the opposition needs to open up its political platform and include citizens, so that our politics is not about ourselves but about them and how they take back power. Third, you have to believe in victory. Politics is about self-fulfilling prophecies. If you believe in what you are doing and in success, it will come.
How important was the Habsburg era for Budapest?
The city itself, how it looks, the very typical buildings and avenues were built at the end of the 19th century, during that peak period of the dual monarchy. Budapest is very much shaped by that age. The core of the city, Andrássy Avenue, was built for the occasion of the millennial celebrations at the end of the 19th century, as were the city park and the underground railway, the first on the continent. That was the golden age.
How important is your city’s relationship with Vienna?
It has always been important and I hope that it will be even more important in the future. Vienna as a modern city is very much something we are looking at and we want to follow its good examples. We just had a summit meeting with my Visegrad colleagues in Bratislava, Prague and Warsaw. That co-operation, how the cities want to get closer to Europe and European values, in spite of the governments who are drifting away, shows also the heritage and mindset of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Is being mayor a launching pad for national politics?
I am fine with where I am now. I feel that this is my job and I have to do it properly. On the other hand, this is a great platform for the opposition to prove its capability to govern, so it is a key position in terms of national politics.
What are your priorities?
Better healthcare, more green spaces and tackling air pollution. Hungarian healthcare is in a terrible shape, people die of diseases that could be prevented, and Budapest is one of the worst cities in terms of air pollution.
What are the issues you need national support for?
Everything to do with finances. Budapest is such an important place in terms of the Hungarian economy. It produces 38 per cent of Hungarian gdp but we only receive 1.5 per cent of what the city generates.
Can you work together with Viktor Orbán?
Based on the first couple of meetings, there is a constructive relationship. It seems that they are trying to co-operate. On the other hand, there is a whole new political set-up in Hungary, not only in Budapest but also in big cities across the countryside. I can sense that the prime minister has not formulated his new strategy for this situation where three million voters are living in cities that are run by opposition mayors. It might be that the end will be all-out war. But if it comes to a war like that, the voters will know it is not because of us.
Former mayor Gabor Demszky said that being mayor of Budapest is hard because power lies in the city’s 23 districts.
I was previously a district mayor and even then I said that this system is not working because there are too many responsibilities at the district level, so the city mayor cannot co-ordinate enough and introduce legislation on the city-wide level.
What can you to do about this?
My strategy is to involve the districts and make them interested in what I want to do across the city.
What does Budapest have to offer to Europe; what makes it special?
An exceptional mix of cultures that have grown together over the centuries: from the Ottomans, the Austrians, the Balkans, even state socialism which has an interesting cultural aesthetic. Budapest, with its baths, its food culture, the Buda hills, is a city of hidden treasures.
Austria’s role in Central Europe
By Christopher Cermak
For decades, Austria, lying at the geographic heart of Europe, has fancied itself as something of a bridge-builder between east and west. Neutrality helped it serve as diplomatic ground between the Iron Curtain and the West, attracting the UN and other international agencies to Vienna, while Austria’s post-war leaders, most notably Bruno Kreisky, aspired to repair relations with their central European neighbours.
Since the end of the Cold War that relationship has grown closer and, since 2000, the “Salzburg Forum”, a security partnership, regularly brings together interior ministers from across the region. Today it is Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz who has taken on the mantle at a particularly divisive time for Europe. The Visegrad states of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia find themselves with nationalist governments that are increasingly at odds with their western European counterparts, particularly on the fraught topic of migration. Kurz has come closest to seeing things from the Visegrad’s point of view, closing Austria’s borders at the height of the 2016 refugee crisis (drawing the ire of Germany’s Angela Merkel) and cultivating personal relationships with its leaders, notably Hungary’s Viktor Orban.
Now, at the helm of a new government that sees the Greens replacing the right-wing Freedom party as his partners, Kurz has a chance to rebuild his credibility among western leaders without losing his ties to Visegrad leaders. It’s a fine line to walk. Is this young leader really up to the task? Time will tell.