Opposition-led Hungarian capital holds democracy conference in sign of defiance

Towards Polycentric Governance: Building Room for Democratic Experimentalism in the Political, Urban and Corporate World panel, Budapest Forum, 16.09.2021. (L-R) Gábor Kerpel-Fronius, Deputy Mayor of Budapest. Cristina Corduneanu-Huci, Associate Professor, Central European University, Charles Sabel, Professor, Columbia University LaTosha Brown, Co-founder, Black Voters Matter Fund Moderator: Nick Thorpe, BBC [Zoran Popovici]

As Hungarian opposition parties are preparing to elect a single challenger to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Budapest’s green mayor, one of the prime ministerial hopefuls, is holding a conference on sustainable democracy together with an exiled liberal university and opposition think tank.

“We feel that democracy is facing some sort of threat. And the fact that we are here suggests that we think that there is something we can do about these threats”, mayor Gergely Karácsony said in his opening speech to the forum co-organised with the Central European University (CEU) Democracy Institute and the Political Capital think tank, and named after the city he leads.

The venue is symbolic, CEU was exiled in 2017 by a higher education law that the EU’s highest court has since found to go against bloc rules.

CEU pledges not to 'abandon its home' but sticks to transfer plans

The Central European University (CEU) hailed on Thursday (5 March) an opinion from the advocate general of the EU’s top court, which said restrictions imposed by Hungary on foreign universities breach WTO and EU law but said that it will continue to transfer its operations to Vienna.

For the first time in more than a decade, Karácsony might be right.

All of Hungary’s six biggest oppositions parties – socialist MSZP and centre-left’s DK, the green LMP and Párbeszéd, the liberal Momentum and the formerly far-right turned conservative Jobbik – have agreed to have a single candidate in each of the 106 electoral districts as the best way to challenge Orbán’s Fidesz party.

The rainbow coalition will also rally behind a joint prime ministerial candidate and have a common electoral programme and a common list.

Orbán’s challenger will be determined in a two-round primaries, which start on Saturday (18 September). Five candidates, including Karácsony, have thrown their hats into the ring.

Hope. Hope?

The mayor is positioning himself as an integrative choice, able to speak to both the angry opposition constituency and the disillusioned undecided voters. Many in Brussels and liberal capitals across Europe hope he is the harbinger of governmental change in April 2022, putting an end to Fidesz’s rule, which has run uninterrupted since 2010.

“Budapest’s mayor is seen as a hope in the whole EU, especially in Germany and in France”, one of the participants at the Budapest Forum, Luxembourg’s Foreign and European Affairs Minister, Jean Asselborn, told EURACTIV.

“He is seen as the hope that Hungary, which is an extremely important country, goes back on track where the rule of law, minorities are respected,” he said.

Asked why he is attending a conference on democracy within the EU, Asselborn said “coming to Budapest as a minister of foreign affairs is an adventure in its own right.”

“I am not here against anyone or anything, I am her for one thing: the defence of the fundamental rules of democracy,” he added.

However, even though the West sees Karácsony as the clear frontrunner of the primaries race, things are far less clear in Hungary itself.

His main opponents are European federalist social democrat MEP Klára Dobrev, the spouse of ex-prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, and conservative Jobbik chief Péter Jakab, both seen as divisive and more controversial candidates.

All eyes on Hungary

In parallel to the Budapest Forum, the mayors of the capitals of the Visegrád 4 countries (Poland, Hungary, Czechia, and Slovakia) held a summit with their European colleagues on Thursday to expand their alliance to 19 more cities and “build a global network of progressive mayors and cities in defense of democracy and pluralism.”

Meanwhile, many in Central and Eastern Europe are watching closely how the Hungarian elections will pan out.

While visiting his counterpart in Hungary, Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, who also comes from an opposition party, said the cooperation of the Hungarian opposition “should make us think how to talk to each other, how to make a coalition.”

“Because if we are still fragmented, it will be very difficult to win elections in Poland. So we are closely watching what’s happening in Hungary,” he told this website.

Nevertheless, Trzaskowski, who lost a presidential election against the incumbent conservative Andrzej Duda, said a failure of the opposition in Hungary would not have direct consequences for Poland.

“If Viktor Orban wins, that’s going to be very bad news for all of us and for all of us in Europe, but it is not going to influence directly the situation in Poland”, he said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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