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How the Greens won Budapest

Viktor Orbán's Fidesz party seemed unbeatable until a progressive breakthrough at the Budapest mayoral elections.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
21 February 2020
Supports of left-wing party Dialogue at a demonstration in Budapest.
Supports of left-wing party Dialogue at a demonstration in Budapest.
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PA Images

As he made me coffee in his kitchen on the train to Budapest, the chatty chef said something surprising: “there is a fashion now to hate the president”. Orbán would, he guessed, lose the next election.

On my previous trip to Hungary, just 15 months ago, progressives were glum. Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party was running ever further to the right. And it wasn’t just leading in the polls, it was lapping the fractured and infiltrated opposition.

On the back of an anti-Semitic re-election campaign that spring, Fidesz had secured 2/3 of the seats in Hungary’s gold-plated parliament building, giving it the right to change the country’s constitution at will – a power they’ve not been slow to use. None of the various progressive parties had managed to even reach second place: they’d also been beaten by another far right party, Jobbik.

This weekend, it felt a little different. While it may be fool’s gold, there was at the very least a sparkle of hope in the cold winter sun.

A decade of damage

The consequences of Fidesz’s decade in office have been brutal. When I visited the north-eastern city of Miskolc, a large area of Roma housing was being cleared. Teenagers described how discrimination had forced them out of conventional schooling, and how they’re forced to sit at the front of the tram. This weekend, a far right group will march through a Roma area of the city.

More than one Roma parent told me that they worried that their children would soon be taken from them, explicitly invoking the experience of indigenous Americans and Australians. A conversation with a police officer in the city underlined that fear: unprompted, he ranted about his hatred for Roma people, and argued that Romani children should be removed from their parents so they couldn’t learn their culture.

Antiziganism in Hungary – to give this form of racial discrimination its proper name – is now so active that many Roma people are fleeing. Most use their right to travel within the EU to head west. Others cross the ocean. 70% of those who apply for asylum in Canada are accepted – they are able to present enough evidence of persecution.

It’s not only Roma people. Orbàn has chased much of the Central European University out of Budapest, and attacked gender studies departments as part of his war on feminism. His allied oligarchs have bought out the majority of the press. Last year, openDemocracy uncovered a long list of examples of electoral malpractice in the 2018 election. And in 2018 more than one person said to me that public criticism of the ruling party – including in social media posts – can mean losing your job if you’re one of the many people on the government’s public works scheme. The country is sometimes described by those following the rise of the global far right as a model for social control with the veneer of democracy.

In 2018, I interviewed Hungary’s first ever black MP, a member of Dialogue for Hungary, one of the country’s two Green parties – ironically, they’d split over whether to unite with the rest of the left. The traditional socialist party was also divided in two in 2011, when the former prime minister set up the equally ironically named Democratic Coalition. 

And then there was Momentum: a new, Macron-like centrist party. I interviewed their young lead MEP candidate Katalin Cseh in a hipster bar in the city centre. While she was clearly impressive in her own right, I wasn’t convinced of her ability to reach beyond the world of international graduates to which she belonged, and the party looked like it might be another chance for opponents of Orbánism to divide their energy. I never wrote up the interview.

I regret that now: in the European elections last spring, her party came third. She won a seat, and is now reckoned by some to be the most popular politician in the country.

In the autumn municipal elections, though, something even more surprising happened: the opposition parties managed to ally together, and won a number of crucial races. And in the most prominent election of all, Gergely Karácsony, candidate of the pro-collaboration green party, Dialogue, became the mayor of Budapest, unseating the Fidesz incumbent and kicking the first hole in Orbàn’s brick wall.

A progressive alliance worked

Asking various activists how they’d done it, the first thing almost everyone talked about is the very fact that the opposition parties finally managed to forge a progressive alliance – something many people had been trying to make happen for years.

The process started with NGOs, trade unions and social movements forcing progressive parties to sit down with each other. The socialist and green candidates agreed to stand against each other in a pre-election primary. Everyone in Budapest was entitled to vote – and 34,000 did, with Dialogue’s Karácsony winning.

The energy from the first primary encouraged Democratic Coalition and Momentum to submit their candidates to a second stage. This attracted 68,000 voters, with Karácsony winning again.

Eventually, even the far-right Jobbik ended up withdrawing from the race, such was the pressure for a united opposition.

As well as preventing the vote from being split, the process of the primaries itself built energy and momentum. It raised the profile of the elections, and encouraged the idea that Fidesz were beatable: in the end, the incumbent mayor got more votes than he had before, but was crushed under a much bigger turnout: nearly 20% more people voted than the previous time.

Mastering new comms – from Facebook to face to face

Richárd Barabás was a key figure in the campaign – acting as its spokesperson and managing to secure his own election as deputy mayor of his district. Over coffee in his neighbourhood, we discussed his party’s success.

Alongside the primary process, another factor in Karácsony’s victory was the mastery of new communications technology. While Fidesz control the state TV which older people see, he says, Generations X and Y communicate in a different way – online, and peer to peer. Despite claiming to be a youth party (Orbán founded Fidesz in 1988 as a youth movement against Soviet communism), they have little understanding of how to use these tools, and so are falling behind.

Just as important, though, was a new innovation the party brought to Hungary: door-knocking. In a media environment where people don’t know what to believe, nothing beats meeting them face to face. While Fidesz rely on mobilising a huge database of their own supporters, the Greens knocked on thousands of doors, speaking to people about their concerns. Barabás tells me he personally knocked on 1,500 doors – 40% of the district he now represents, and that this is something other parties haven’t done in the past in Hungary.

The risk in both cases is that Fidesz will learn from its opponents. Just as Labour’s online operation ran rings around the Tories in 2017, only for Boris Johnson to buy in the internet expertise in 2019, Hungary’s municipal elections could well jolt Fidesz into action online and on doorsteps, if they can gather enough enthusiasts.

When I asked Barábas what his party’s main messages were in the election, he was able to recite three immediately: a green city (more green space, fewer cars), spend money on healthcare not more of Orbán’s endless stadiums, and a wealth tax to redistribute the proceeds of corruption into healthcare - which allowed them to talk about Orbán’s oligarchs. Surprisingly few progressive parties have such good message discipline.

A growing social movement 

Electoral success for the left almost invariably flies in the slipstream of growing social movement power. And so it is in Budapest. On Saturday, I found myself at what many told me was one of the biggest anti-fascist demonstrations in recent years.

An annual protest against a neo-Nazi commemoration, normally, only a handful of people show up. This year, there were hundreds.

One of them was Jenő, a Romani organiser I first met in 2018. When we spoke then, he talked about how he worked hard to make sure he showed up to protect other people’s rights – from LGBTQI protests to feminist events to Jewish commemorations. That way, he said, he hoped they would show similar solidarity when his people needed it. Roma flags were as common at the demo as anti-fascist banners.

The year-old Extinction Rebellion Hungary were there, as were students, academics, old socialists, young anarchists, and a loud samba band who had gathered from across Europe.

Lurking at the back of the protest was the American journalist Justin Spike, who has lived in Budapest for around a decade. This week, he’s written on the website 444 about the rise of this new movement of movements: feminists, environmentalists, refugee and migrant groups and housing activists:

“This movement, divorced from both the right-wing populism of Fidesz and the neoliberalism of some of the opposition parties, set out to use horizontal, democratic organization… [it] eschewed electoral politics, pursuing instead a strategy of institution-building which they hoped could provide for the common welfare and represent a solidarity-based, sustainable alternative to mainstream politicking.

The movement, Spike argues, filled “the void” left by the endlessly fracturing and failing opposition parties, and with some modest success, could be replicated elsewhere.

Forever blowing bubbles: the limits of Orbanomics

There is another way to see all of this though – something which, strangely, none of the politicians or activists I talked to raised: house prices in Budapest have doubled in the last five years. The number of renters in the country has increased by 50% over the ten years of Fidesz rule, with owner occupiers falling from 90% to 85% since 2010. 

This housing bubble didn’t just inflate by chance. Some of Orbán’s most famous policies include significant subsidies for buyers, pumping cash into the market which will ultimately inflate prices and end up in the pockets of those with assets to sell.

Since 2016, base interest rates have been slashed to less than 1%, and those with spare cash will be pumping it into the property market. Without regulation on AirBnB, whole stairwells in the capital’s imperious centre have been turned over to tourists.

In January 2018, the central bank pumped petrol into this engine, printing money and buying up mortgaged backed securities in a form of quantitative easing.

Fidesz has turned the Hungarian economy into a conveyer belt carrying cash from the wages of young working class people into the pockets of those who can afford to trade on the property market: the upper middle class, a new group of domestic oligarchs and, if the rumours are correct, Chinese and Gulf speculators - the powerful are having their pockets lined, and repaying the favour in a cynical political circle.

Likewise, those who own their own home will mostly see it’s price go up and feel more financially secure. Property bubbles keep the electorate happy – for a while.

This isn’t unusual: travelling across Istanbul in 2016, I was astounded to see a forest of cranes, with flimsy but flashy skyscrapers going up on every roadside. That year, the Telegraph had listed the city in the top ten places in the world to buy-to-let. Property prices had risen by 42% in five years, and Erdogan’s polling rose with them.

Ireland has seen a similar phenomenon: house prices in central Dublin doubled between 2012 and 2019

And just like in Budapest, establishments in both Istanbul and Dublin have discovered that there are losers in a housing bubble, as well as winners: for the dozen years since the banks collapsed, working class millennials have been running on a treadmill which drives the rise of an oligarch class.

Erdogan’s AKP lost control of Istanbul and Ankara last spring in shock election results. Fidesz lost control of Budapest in the autumn in shock election results. And the Fianna Fáil Fine Gael duopoly which has governed Ireland suffered a shock loss to Sinn Fein this weekend. (The UK, on the other hand, where the Brexit-fearful housing market has been decidedly stagnant, has seen the government secure a surprisingly large majority – not that there weren’t other factors at play).

They’re not there… yet

No progressive party has yet managed to fully articulate the failures of Fidesz. None has fully captured the energy of young anger. Orbán is still way ahead in the polls and there is every likelihood that his Fidesz will win the 2022 election. 

But in the meantime, those who have lost from the housing bubble will continue to anger. Movements will blossom and put down roots, forcing opposition parties to follow them. And one day, when few are expecting it, the Hungarian housing bubble will make like bubbles do. 

The question is, will anyone have the power to step in when it does? In the meantime, Fidesz are responding to their shock by running further to the right. The victims will be Roma, LGBTQI people, women and migrants. But for the first time in a decade, the party has shown that it’s vulnerable.

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