Europe’s Populist Governments Have a Problem: Their Capitals

City-level opposition could be the key to defeating populism in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and beyond.

Gergely Karacsony addresses an audience in Budapest, Hungary, after his victory in the capital city's mayoral election.
Gergely Karacsony addresses an audience in Budapest, Hungary, on Oct. 13, after winning city's mayoral election. Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

The rise of populist, nationalist governments in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia have made these countries, the Visegrad Group, the black sheep of Europe. But their capitals—Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, and Bratislava—could offer a platform from which to challenge populism at the city level. Opposition mayors now run all four cities.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban suffered his first significant political defeat in a decade in October when his ruling Fidesz party lost control of Budapest. It is now up to Gergely Karacsony, the new mayor, to prove that his victory was more than symbolic.

The election of the 44-year-old green politics veteran by a margin of more than 6 percent completed a regional set of young, progressive mayors who now control the political, cultural, and economic hearts of their countries. That means the ruling parties have lost control of city-level funds that help prop up political support, and they must now contend with threats to their political agendas. Their image of invincibility at the polls has slipped. In response, populist leaders could use their losses to reinforce a carefully crafted narrative that they stand for the people against a globalist liberal elite.

The four mayors’ political outlooks are far from uniform: Warsaw’s Rafal Trzaskowski is a former minister from the center-right Civic Platform, Matus Vallo runs Bratislava at the head of a team of independent technocrats, and Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib is an activist physician from the upstart, anti-establishment Pirate Party. But they are united in their opposition to the illiberal tendencies of their national governments. “They’re all young, well-educated, open-minded people that have found the way to attract liberal city voters,” said Jakub Groszkowski, the head of Central Europe department at the Centre for Eastern Studies, a Warsaw-based think tank.

Likewise, clear differences also persist amongst the Visegrad Group’s national governments, especially regarding the depth of their attacks on liberal democracy and the extent of their efforts to seek ties with Russia and China. However, all have adopted populist and nationalist policies and rhetoric, positioning themselves against the perceived threat of an internationalist elite.

In Hungary and across the region, right-wing populists have proved difficult to unseat, but control of the capitals could provide opportunities for opposition parties to make inroads. “[T]hose who oppose the government … are coming to realize that change can start at the very local and inform the national,” wrote Umut Korkut, a professor at Glasgow Caledonian University, following Karacsony’s win.

Releasing Budapest from nine years of Fidesz control required support from parties extending from the old left to the far right. Hungary’s disparate opposition had talked of cooperating to depose Fidesz for years, but when failure to unite ahead of the April 2018 general election saw Orban seal yet another constitutional majority, Fidesz started to look invincible.

October’s municipal elections felt like the last chance, according to some party veterans. Tactical cooperation saw opposition candidates beat Fidesz to win control in nearly half of the country’s major cities. That shattered the myth that the party had become unbeatable, Karacsony said.

Orban’s communications chief, Zoltan Kovacs, acknowledged that the nature of political competition had begun to shift as disparate opposition interests sought to unify. “Fidesz is still by far the strongest political force in the country but a lot depends on the operational and cooperation forms the opposition is able to use,” he said. “That is a new dynamic that we are closely observing.”

Budapest, like the region’s other capitals, carries massive weight—financially, symbolically and in terms of raw political power. The metropolitan area is home to around one-third of the Hungarian population and accounts for more than 40 percent of the national economy. Karacsony and the other opposition mayors will control substantial resources—including some of the billions of dollars in European Union funding that flows from Brussels to help spur economic and social development. The distribution of attractive jobs at city-owned companies will also be under their control.

These are the channels that Fidesz is suspected of having used to help cement power by giving lucrative positions to well-connected supporters across the country, even as Orban railed against the EU. The new mayors around the country have pledged immediate audits to check for corruption.

As the mayor of the country’s capital city, Karacsony will command significant political relevance and mainstream media coverage, despite the government’s likely attempts to demonize him—which is a rarity for the opposition, since Orban’s government has taken control of most television and newspaper outlets. His level of prominence will give him the opportunity to start a national conversation on topics such as corruption that rarely see coverage. “If you’re not a very conscious citizen then you’re simply not going to hear about these cases,” said Tamas Bodoky, the editor in chief of the Budapest-based investigative journalism outlet Atlatszo.

Bratislava Mayor Matus Vallo—part of a cohort of independents who were swept into power in November 2018 by anger over the assassination of the journalist Jan Kuciak, who was killed less than nine months prior as he investigated links between the government and the Italian mafia—is also starting to burrow into corruption allegations. The nominally center-left Direction-Social Democracy party, known as Smer, which had dominated Slovak politics for over a decade, failed to win any of the country’s eight regional capitals and lost hundreds of smaller municipalities.

Reinforced by the victory of Progressive Slovakia’s Zuzana Caputova in the presidential election this March, control of the major cities has helped give momentum to the liberal opposition as it prepares to fight Smer and other nationalist contenders in parliamentary elections in February 2020. “Smer party members now regret they didn’t move more aggressively to build an authoritarian system to dampen competition like Orban did in Hungary,” said Pavel Sibyla, a senior official from Progressive Slovakia.

Accusations that the government has allowed oligarchs (and even the Italian mafia) to capture the state have so dented support for Smer that the forthcoming election should be the first serious contest in a parliamentary election for a decade. Some opposition officials say they hope that control of the cities will help restrict the party’s ability to manufacture political support. In Bratislava, for instance, an overhaul of management at city-owned companies has gone hand in hand with corruption investigations.

Elsewhere in the region, the ruling nationalist populists are in worse shape in major cities. Orban’s response to his party’s loss in Budapest was to congratulate Poland’s populist Law and Justice (PiS) party, which on the same day won a second term in government. Like his regional peers, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has exploited weak opposition leadership at a national level and used state handouts to spur support in more rural areas. But urbanites remain immune even to the charms of Mateusz Morawiecki, the polished banker Kaczynski installed as prime minister, which leaves PiS with a slim majority and reliant on coalition partners.

The party has been locked out of Warsaw city hall for 13 years. It controls none of Poland’s 10 largest cities, which are a lifeline for the opposition. “It’s the big cities that have allowed the opposition to remain politically relevant,” said Ryszard Luczyn of Polityka Insight, a Poland-based political analysis group. Without the opposition challenge in the urban centers, PiS may well have sealed the constitutional majority that Kaczynski so craves.

Trzaskowski campaigned hard to mobilize Warsaw’s electorate—even opening up free museums to encourage voters to come out on polling day. That helped produce a record turnout of 77 percent, said Jacek Kucharczyk of the Institute of Public Affairs, a Warsaw think tank.

The urban vote also helped wrest control of the upper house of the Polish legislature from PiS. That should halt the ruling party’s practice of ramming legislation through with little scrutiny from the opposition. But the opposition in Poland and elsewhere still faces a major challenge: how to bridge the deepening urban-rural divide. Only 15 percent or so of Poles live in cities with a population larger than 200,000, according to Luczyn. “Local elections, especially in the capital city, are important on the national level,” Groszkowski said, “but in smaller towns and villages challenges are different. The opposition must change its rhetoric.”

Slawomir Sierakowski, the founder of Poland’s Krytyka Polityczna movement, argued in Foreign Policy last month that the opposition must match PiS’s generous social spending if it wants to make inroads with provincial voters. Both Trzaskowski and Karacsony added that propaganda piped through government-controlled public media makes reaching such voters difficult.“We know how to convince people in the big cities, our problem is how to convince people in the rural areas in the south and east, especially when there’s such an impact of government propaganda,” Trzaskowski said ahead of the election. Although Orban’s dream of building a nationalist bloc inside the EU has all but collapsed, provocateurs such as Steve Bannon persist in trying to sell Trumpism to the region.

Yet control of the capitals is a starting point. Despite the risk that it could confirm the populist narrative of a globalist urban elite, it offers opposition parties the political room to maneuver that the national regimes seek to deny.

Taking the fight across international lines should be easier. Karacsony hopes to form a coalition of Visegrad Group capitals to mend relations with the EU. That could help project a more positive image of the Visegrad countries to international partners,” said Kucharczyk, who also foresees joint environmental and other cross-border projects to link the region’s cities.

Although Orban’s dream of building a nationalist bloc inside the EU has all but collapsed, provocateurs such as Steve Bannon, the operative who helped U.S. President Donald Trump rise to political prominence before turning his attention to Europe, persist in trying to sell Trumpism to the region.

Arpad Soltesz, a political commentator and the director of the Jan Kuciak Investigative Center in Slovakia—which was established after the journalist’s murder—said that many in Bratislava see the coming Slovak election “not as a fight of left against right or liberal against conservative, but as a referendum on taking the country East or West.”

He is not the only one who views the fight in such fundamental terms. Prague is busy countering the efforts of Czech President Milos Zeman to improve the country’s relations with Russia. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, Zeman’s political ally, has tolerated the president’s push to strengthen ties with Russia and China, even against warnings from the security services. But city leaders are busy contesting those links.

Hrib recently tore up a sister city agreement with Beijing after China refused to remove a clause insisting that the Czech capital respect the Chinese government’s territorial claims under the “One China” policy. China promptly threatened to pull the few investments Zeman has landed. Hrib’s Pirate Party, the Czech Republic’s strongest opposition force, appeared keen to wade into the fray. “We know that the Chinese regime views its partners as vassals and does not like disobedience,” it said in a statement posted on Facebook. “However, we … refuse to bow to such an authoritarian regime that is responsible for ‘re-education’ camps and trafficking in illegal organ transplants.”

The failure to retain major cities, including all four capitals, could wind up being a decisive setback for the Visegrad Group’s populist governments. But for all the efforts of city leaders, economics may prove the biggest threat to the populist regimes across the region. An economic boom has provided the cash for government handouts that drive public support for populists, but a slowdown could end that.

Just as the global financial crisis helped to usher these populist forces into power, another downturn could dent support critically. A recent survey suggests PiS could lose 15 percent of the Polish electorate should the money dry up. Opposition parties will not win back power in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia through mayoral victories in their capital cities alone. But the momentum from those upsets, coupled by a potential blow to the ruling governments as their economies weaken, could give proponents of change a fighting chance.

Tim Gosling is a Prague-based freelance journalist and analyst covering Central and Eastern Europe. Twitter: @TGosCEE

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