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Hungarians Can’t Be Bought With Potatoes

The election of a Green mayor in Budapest is a rare setback for Hungary’s far-right premier Viktor Orbán. But if it’s going to mount a sustainable challenge to his rule, the opposition needs to start voicing the malaise of the majority of Hungarians.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán. (Annika Haas / Flickr)

Just days after his election win, the new progressive mayor of Budapest’s District III started handing out tons of potatoes to local residents, at a token price. It cannot, alas, be said that such practices are rare in Hungary in election season — a kind of bribe to the voters. Yet the difference here was that László Kiss had already been elected for the next five years. In fact, it was his predecessor — a member of Viktor Orbán’s far-right Fidesz party — who had ordered the potatoes ahead of election day, only for the delivery to arrive too late. This left sack upon sack of spuds for the new leadership to work out what to do with.

The same week, on the morning of October 17, a man on a bike arrived at Budapest City Hall, wearing a backpack of the kind popular among young people in hip areas of Berlin such as Kreuzberg or Neukölln. This unlikely figure was Gergely Karácsony, arriving for his first day at work as mayor of the Hungarian capital, after his election four days earlier. The “Copenhagen Cycle Chic” Facebook page captioned this image as “Urban vs. Orbán” — perfectly capturing the dynamic of the municipal elections, which ended in major setbacks for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his allies in the capital and other urban centers.

This caption especially hit on the territorial split in Hungarians’ vote. Fidesz remained mostly unchallenged in rural areas and retained a majority in every single county assembly. Yet cities which Orbán’s allies had previously controlled, including Budapest, instead fell to a united opposition, largely comprised of various liberal and left-wing parties. However, this opposition was not only made up of progressives. Outside the capital, it even relied on collaboration with the nationalist Jobbik — a party of past neo-Nazi ties, today trying to reposition itself as a moderate right-wing alternative to the corrupt and autocratic Fidesz.

The Green-aligned Karácsony’s victory in Budapest is good news for many residents — his plans to ease the housing crisis, stop evictions, and provide adequate care for the homeless promise to benefit the most vulnerable in particular. Yet these elections were not exactly a breakthrough for the Left. There is little socialist movement to speak of in Hungary (the neoliberalized Socialist Party is anything but), and the opposition is drawn from across the political spectrum, united above all by a shared opposition to Orbán’s tyrannical kleptocracy.

His dominance of parliament — controlling the two-thirds majority necessary to make constitutional changes — means he could even chip away at the powers of local governments controlled by the opposition. The loss of Budapest City Hall is a blow to Orbán. For now, at least, there’s no end in sight to his rule. For a real challenge to take place, the opposition needs to start speaking to a wider electorate — and look beyond the clash between “Urban vs. Orbán.”

Shy Oppositionists?

It’s worth noting that none of this was expected. In fact, the opposition parties greatly outperformed the scores predicted by pollsters. This may be explained by an atmosphere of intimidation, where opposition supporters hid their voting intentions due to fear of retaliation (such as loss of public sector employment, or administrative bullying of their businesses).

The victories for progressive candidates also came despite the pro-Orbán alignment of a near-all-powerful media oligarchy — or maybe precisely because it shamelessly parrots the most absurd lies. These included conspiracy theories familiar from previous elections, such as supposed plans by opposition candidates to import migrants to their cities if they won the elections.

Orbán is a lawyer by training — indeed, he even studied at Oxford University, thanks to the support of George Soros (a man he now accuses of plotting the ethnic replacement of Hungarians by immigrants). So, he knows that immigration policy is the competence of the national government, and that mayors could not bring in migrants even if they wanted to. Yet this is still a perpetual Fidesz attack line.

The opposition was also aided by an unusual scandal involving a leaked tape of the mayor of Győr (Hungary’s sixth-largest city) apparently participating in a cocaine-fueled orgy on a yacht with prostitutes. So much for traditional family values. Stunningly, the mayor in question was reelected by a slight margin, but the scandal nonetheless dragged Fidesz candidates down in other cities.

Beyond such scandals, the results were a ray of hope for oppositionists after a dark decade of total nationalist hegemony and the rapid deterioration of the Hungarian polity. Once the poster child of successful democratic transition, Hungary has today become the laboratory of a new style of autocratic governance described by Orbán himself as “illiberal democracy” and by Marxist philosopher G.M. Tamás as “post-fascism” (and lauded by the likes of Richard Spencer and Matteo Salvini).

Progress in the City

In this sense, the most important antifascist victory was Gergely Karácsony’s election as mayor of Budapest. He is a member of Dialogue for Hungary, which is affiliated with the European Greens and was supported by all major left-wing, liberal, and green parties. He was also indirectly helped by the nationalist Jobbik party, because it chose not to run a candidate of its own, though it stayed out of his alliance itself, likely given its own toxic reputation among urban leftists and liberals.

Karácsony and other progressive candidates in each district were also helped by a socialist grassroots campaign group called Szabad Budapest Forum or “Free Budapest Forum” which is fighting for a “city in which the interests of people come before the interests of capital.” While he is no socialist, by regional standards Karácsony does advance progressive measures.

He favors a universal basic income, as well as more immediate social reforms like dealing with the Budapest rent crisis. He promises to “build a free and green twenty-first-century European city,” by cutting carbon emissions, improving public transport and cycle infrastructure, fighting corruption, and easing the housing crisis. Housing was a major issue in the election, and Karácsony’s victory was likely aided by renters’ discontent with skyrocketing costs.

Some of his first measures also pointed to the prospect of a challenge to Orbán’s chauvinist hegemony. Within his first few days in office, the new mayor promised to declare a climate emergency, asked the expelled Central European University to keep more of its operations in Budapest, and suspended all evictions ordered by the city. When a journalist half-jokingly asked when he would place a rainbow flag on City Hall, he instantly replied — “during Pride week.”

Considering the overall public hostility toward the LGBT community, this was, in fact, a bold statement of intent. So, too, is his support for the Kurds. While Orbán is currently the only EU leader to openly endorse Erdogan’s invasion of northern Syria, Karácsony displayed the flag of Rojava in his office window as pro-Kurdish protesters marched through the street below.

Orbán’s Hegemony

Yet any optimism ought to carry a heavy note of caution. These results do not mark a radical shift of political alignments, and indeed if national elections were held tomorrow Fidesz would probably secure a comfortable majority.

Where the opposition did win, this was the result of close cooperation between various parties. This was especially forged during last year’s movement against the so-called slave law — an amendment to the labor code that allows employers to demand more overtime but delay payment for the work done. While unions are weak in Hungary, this did create an unprecedented protest movement against Orbán.

In past elections, a divided opposition had handed the Fidesz leader large majorities — big enough to change the constitution. This time around, in most cities the whole opposition rallied behind a single candidate, though there was no umbrella organization of democratic forces. Cooperation with the once far-right Jobbik is hardly uncontroversial and highlights the desperation of Orbán’s liberal and left-wing opponents.

One of the dangers of giving too much significance to the results is a lack of public awareness of the limits of electoral politics in a competitive authoritarian system (a system in which elections matter but the game is rigged). These defeats can also be used by Orbán as a tool to gain legitimacy abroad by suggesting that Hungary is a perfectly functional democracy since the opposition can win local elections. Similar upsets, of course, occur even in countries like Russia or Turkey yet these countries are anything but democratic. Despite its gains, the opposition will hardly have any influence over national politics and will control a tiny fraction of the budget of the national government.

This source of legitimacy comes at perfect timing for both Orbán and EU leaders who pay lip service to European values but are reluctant to act when a member state tramples on them. Fidesz is still a member of the conservative European People’s Party alongside Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and its politicians are in prominent positions in that group. The European Union not only refused to take serious action as Orbán destroyed Hungary’s democracy, but actively enabled it. Notably, it financed the corrupt projects that made Orbán’s childhood friend Lőrinc Mészáros by some estimates Hungary’s richest individual. Hence French and German taxpayers end up financing the propaganda apparatus that vilifies “Brussels,” George Soros, NGOs, asylum seekers, LGBT people, and other “enemies of the people.”

Since May’s European elections, key European establishment figures have, indeed, signaled a willingness to accept Hungary’s regime effectively depriving its citizens of their political rights. When French president Emmanuel Macron recently met Orbán, he refrained from tough criticism: when Merkel was asked by a journalist about Hungary’s misappropriation of EU funds, she claimed that it spends this money in accordance with the rules — a clear absurdity if watchdog reports of rampant corruption are to be trusted.

It is currently not in Merkel’s interest to challenge Orbán. His razor-wire fence and starvation tactics have drastically reduced migrant arrivals to Germany through the Balkan route — a position that today helps the CDU resist right-wing opposition back home. Second, the German capitalist class makes massive profits by moving some of its manufacturing activities to Hungary where labor is cheap and unions are suppressed. Yet despite these pressures, it is crucial not to allow Orbán and his European enablers to use these opposition victories in order to normalize the Hungarian regime.

Who Is Voting for Orbán?

While there is no data on the exact demographic makeup of October’s municipal votes, the location of surprising results allows us some insight into the voting behaviors of various groups.

Perhaps the most shocking outcome was the opposition victory in traditionally conservative and affluent areas previously considered Fidesz’s “heartland.” This includes some districts of the Buda side of the capital including the Castle area, the Buda hills, and well-off suburbs such as Szentendre. This seems to indicate a shift against Orbán among the upper-middle and upper classes, notwithstanding the regime’s consistent favoritism toward this demographic as against low-income citizens. Thanks to Orbán’s reactionary tax reforms Hungary currently has a flat income tax, the highest VAT, and the lowest corporate tax rate in the European Union.

At this point, we can only speculate why some rich voters turned away from the government. It may be because people whose daily existence is not threatened by financial insecurity have more capacity to lament the loss of political freedoms, and they also likely have better access to independent news sources. Social conservatives may also have been appalled by the sex scandal.

Conversely, Fidesz won overwhelming victories in smaller rural towns and villages. The party is dominant here: as well as the weaker reach for alternative news sources, many poorer inhabitants are dependent on local Fidesz strongmen for their livelihoods, through patronage structures and public works spending that has come to replace genuine welfare. Jobless people in rural communities with very limited economic opportunities were previously supported by Hungary’s weak post-Communist welfare state. Now they are at the mercy of local pro-Orbán bosses, who control who gets to work in these programs. No wonder that Fidesz often scores over 90 percent of the vote in some of Hungary’s poorest villages.

While Fidesz engaged in ruthless economic warfare against poorer Hungarians in the last decade, the result did not owe to any massive awakening of working-class revolt. The mostly working-class Budapest district of Csepel, historically referred to as “red Csepel” due to its past communist tendencies, remained in Fidesz control while the deindustrialized Dunaújváros (in the 1950s called Stalin City) went to the anti-Orbán but nationalist Jobbik party. Two exceptions to this trend are the mostly working-class city of Miskolc and Budapest’s District XIII (comprised of upper-middle-class Újlipótváros and working-class Angyalföld), won by the Socialists — in District XIII this party took a stunning 82 percent.

It is not wholly surprising that these supposed Socialists enjoyed strong scores in such affluent areas: indeed, in the 2000s a large share of working-class Hungarians abandoned the party, as Socialist prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány embraced neoliberalism along the lines of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, along with sharp austerity measures. This created a window of opportunity for nationalists and fascists, which resulted in the rise of Jobbik and the supermajority of Fidesz in 2010. The Left is yet to recover from these setbacks.

Liberation in Our Hearts

In light of this picture, the opposition needs to understand that it can only ever mobilize a mass movement against Orbán, able to reach beyond the big cities, if it learns to listen to the concerns of working-class people and rural communities. However, this cannot and should not be achieved by capitulation to Orbán’s racist narrative. Alas, this is the path chosen by former neoliberal-Socialist prime minister Gyurcsány and the “Democratic Coalition” vehicle, which has agitated against Ukrainian migrant workers and promised to keep the border fence if elected.

Instead of such a morally abject turn, the Left needs to fight for economic and social policies that enable the poorest strata of Hungarian society to live in dignity. The latter must not be excluded from political participation by the stress of the financial insecurity that the pro-rich neoliberal policies of Orbán, as well as his supposedly Socialist predecessors, have unleashed on the most vulnerable.

As an alternative to a Fidesz party that humiliates poor Hungarians by tossing them bags of potatoes on election day, the opposition and its affluent supporters need to understand that the only way to get the broader public on board with their project of restoring political democracy is to attach it to a fight for the democratization of the economy as well.

Philosopher G.M. Tamás put this aptly at a demonstration organized by left-wing students for labor rights and against the removal of a statue of Imre Nagy, a Communist leader who rebelled against the USSR: “If there is liberation in the workplace than there will also be liberation on the squares, in the statute books, in the parliament, and in your hearts.” These words are a fine guide to the opposition to Orbán in its coming battles.