In Hungary, change must start in Budapest

Five months have passed since Hungary’s opposition won an unexpected victory in Budapest’s mayoral election. Less surprising has been the way in which the first 100 days of the new mayor, Gergely Karácsony, have been evaluated. His supporters claim success, his opponents suggest failure.

In Hungary (and much of Central Europe), local governments are close to the citizen, often having a greater impact on their everyday lives than central government. This is true even if their hands are tied by the state. The sheer size of Budapest causes serious challenges to the city administration. Since a constitutional amendment in 2012 – which delegated a number of municipal responsibilities and some income to the central government – no local government can make major investments without state support.

The piquancy of the situation in Budapest is that for the past nine years, the city’s right-wing council and right-wing mayor have received political and financial support for all important investments from central government and from the prime minister, Viktor Orbán.

The new situation – an independent mayor – is not easy for either party. The government has to work with Karácsony, who was a serious contender to become the prime minister two years ago. In order for both the capital and the general public to recognise the importance of controlling and influencing the leadership of Budapest by development – dominated by European Union – resources, it has set up a separate institution, some say against the capital. Orbán and his Fidesz-led government are only willing to cooperate with Karácsony as much as necessary and will ensure that any funds they hand over do not jeopardise their plan to show how inadequate the new Budapest leadership is. Fidesz hopes that the capital is only temporarily outside of its control.

In order to understand Karácsony’s actual performance, we need to be aware of the potential of his office and – perhaps more importantly – its limitations. He has to work in an extremely narrow space, and please both the ruling party and his opposition coalition partners every day.

One of his opportunities, paradoxically, is that the opposition-led capital presents an alternative. Being the head of the local government, he can not only act in the best interests of Budapest but could also fulfill his campaign promises. But most importantly, he is also the most prominent institutional opposition figure in Hungary.

Like other capitals in the Visegrad Group (Bratislava, Prague, Warsaw) where the government has to share power with the opposition, Budapest is an experimental lab, an important one for the opposition in Hungary.

What does this experiment consist of? Basically, proving two theorems: Karácsony and the opposition are capable of governing the country, but even more so the newly formed multi-party cooperation, coalition, is functional and presents a viable option to Fidesz. Budapest has received more media attention than before as good governance can provide a real basis for a national change of government.

So Karácsony’s performance has weight, and he has to shuffle his cards so that – by reversing the previous analogy – he persuades the government to support capital investment (transport, protection of monuments, culture). This won’t be easy. However, Karácsony has already had some success so far, and several professional agreements have been concluded between the capital and the government.

While right-wing criticism is ongoing and will continue, the opposition is still standing by him. If this can be maintained, he will have a good chance of asserting his interests in opposition coalition negotiations in the run-up to the 2022 parliamentary elections.

And that’s more than most expected. The next two years will be crucial for the mayor, the city, the opposition and the country. If there is to be a change of government in 2022, it must start in Budapest.