Gergely Karacsony’s bid to become mayor of Budapest this weekend rests on a fractious coalition of supporters with one thing in common: they are fed up with Viktor Orban.
As Hungary’s nationalist premier has cemented control over the country, his political opponents have for years been making it easier for him by failing to unite — leaving his Fidesz party in firm grip of the political landscape.
But Mr Orban’s foes have now glossed over their divisions to field Mr Karacsony as a single opposition candidate in local elections on Sunday, hoping to land a telling blow in Hungary’s capital and main political battleground.
“We are mobilising very different parties whose common ground is that they have had enough of Fidesz,” Mr Karacsony told the Financial Times after a campaign rally in Budapest’s 18th district. Fidesz triumphed in this post-industrial suburb by a small margin at the last election five years ago.
For Mr Karacsony, 44, Budapest can become to Hungary what Istanbul and Warsaw are for Turkey and Poland: a metropolitan stronghold of progressive politics in a country led by socially conservative strongmen.
“The fundamental political situations are similar,” he said, describing trips to meet Istanbul’s new mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and his campaign team’s co-operation with that of Rafal Trzaskowski, the Warsaw leader elected in 2018.
He said that, while Turkey might in some respects be more authoritarian, “people are more afraid of participation in public life in Hungary than in Turkey”. Prominent businessmen would be more scared to donate to an opposition party in Hungary than in Turkey, he suggested, saying that his campaign had to get printing done in Slovakia because local companies were “too scared” to take their business.
Hungary’s opposition knows it needs a boost, after losing seven straight elections as rival candidates have squabbled and the economy has boomed under Fidesz. Many see the local elections as vital to maintain hope of challenging Mr Orban’s almost decade-old regime — though optimism is muted.
“Politically, the question is whether there will be any boundaries to Fidesz’s power in Hungary,” said Attila Juhasz, senior affiliate of the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute. “By now, the ruling party has taken control of all formally independent institutions that serve as a check on governmental power.”
Mr Juhasz noted that, while only four out of 23 Hungarian cities and six out of 23 Budapest districts are governed by politicians not affiliated with Fidesz, a victory in the capital or elsewhere could give opposition supporters momentum and hope.
However even detractors of Fidesz’s incumbent mayor Istvan Tarlos, who declined an interview and has refused to debate his primary opponent, concede that the mayor has support beyond Fidesz’s base.
Allies of Mr Orban are confident they can repel the threat and show that uniting is not enough to beat the premier.
“If Mr Karacsony is not successful, it will be a sign that these alliances and co-operations among opposition [are] not a solution in the future,” said Agoston Mraz, of the government-sponsored Nezopont Institute. After Sunday’s vote “we will forget about a strong opposition, and they will fight against each other”, Mr Mraz said.
There could be a lot to fight about. Last week, as Mr Karacsony edged within the margin of error of beating Mr Tarlos, a recording surfaced of him making disparaging remarks about members of his fellow opposition Socialist party members. Mr Karacsony said he had no idea where or how the conversations, which he said had been edited, were recorded.
Another video of an opposition politician from the Socialist party in Budapest’s 19th district was released last week showed him waving a bag of what was purportedly cocaine and then portioning it out on a table while discussing drugs and corruption.
Meanwhile, police and other state authorities were investigating the campaign of Andras Piko, an independent candidate in the capital’s eighth district, for allegedly building an illegal voter database, an allegation that the campaign denied. The investigations were dropped three weeks later.
“Fidesz is trying to discredit its opposition by mimicking the Putin regime: they are using private life-related kompromats against them,” said Mr Juhasz, emphasising that “this has been more intense than in any other previous campaign in Hungary”.
Mr Karacsony said the leaked tapes show that “Fidesz did not have a strong campaign this time,” and was adamant that in the recordings he made his intolerance for corruption clear, which he said would appeal to voters.
Even if Mr Karacsony wins, observers point out that he would have a difficult time governing the city if the city council, which is composed of 23 district mayors, remains in the hands of Fidesz.
Gergely Gulyas, one of Mr Orban’s ministers, has hinted that, if Mr Karacsony wins, the government could significantly cut funding to the capital. In the final days of the campaign Mr Karacsony travelled to Brussels to meet officials including European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans, to discuss the idea of direct disbursement of EU funds to cities in the bloc’s next budget cycle.
But Mr Karacsony also acknowledged his fear that Fidesz could use its current supermajority in Hungary’s parliament in pursuit of another trusted tactic for cementing control: amending the constitution to further marginalise the role of local governments.
“What is at stake is not what kind of local policy we want to do but whether we will be able to do local politics or not,” he said.