Viktor Orban Has Declared War on Mayors

Hungary’s prime minister has used the pandemic to drain power from one of the last sources of opposition to his rule.

By Emily Schultheis, a freelance journalist based in Berlin.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban poses before casting his vote for the European elections at a polling station in the XII. district of Hungarian capital Budapest, on May 26, 2019.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban poses before casting his vote for the European elections at a polling station in the XII. district of Hungarian capital Budapest, on May 26, 2019. FERENC ISZA/AFP via Getty Images

BUDAPEST, Hungary—When Gergely Karacsony was elected mayor of Budapest last fall, it was a major moment of hope for Hungary’s political opposition: His victory, along with the success of dozens of other opposition candidates in cities and towns across the country, was the first major electoral setback Prime Minister Viktor Orban has suffered in a decade. Seeing their newly earned local-level offices as key to challenging Orban in the 2022 parliamentary elections, Karacsony and others were eager to convince voters that the opposition was the source of competent, steady governance.

And then came the pandemic. Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in Hungary, Orban and his government have moved aggressively to combat the spread of the virus—including passing a law in March giving Orban the ability to bypass parliament and effectively rule by decree. In the process, the prime minister has used the pandemic as political cover to make life significantly more difficult for newly elected opposition mayors. By reallocating funding, cutting major sources of revenue, designating so-called special economic zones, and not providing up-to-date information about new infections, Orban has limited their ability to carry out basic municipal tasks and take care of their cities.

“Obviously there’s a political calculation behind what the government is doing,” Karacsony told Foreign Policy via a translator. “The government is interested in showing that these opposition mayors and opposition-led municipalities are not delivering on what they had promised … then they can point fingers at us and say, ‘These guys can’t govern.’”

Budapest, like many other municipalities, is already feeling the pain. In addition to the city’s decreased tax revenue during the pandemic from things like business and public transit, a series of moves by Orban’s government deepened its financial woes: For example, Orban declared parking would be free nationwide, cutting off a key source of revenue for municipalities such as Budapest. And significant chunks of the city budgets, including vehicle registration taxes, were reallocated into a national coronavirus response fund. (Funding for political parties will also be redirected to this fund until the end of the year.)

“That basically means we can hardly survive—and we cannot make any new investments, green investments, that we ran on during the campaign,” Karacsony said. “In the medium term, we can’t really finance the basic responsibilities and tasks that Budapest is supposed to carry out.”

Orban, who took office in 2010, has spent the last decade working to centralize power and realize his vision of the country as an “illiberal” democracy. He has, among other things, demonized refugees and migrants; directly and indirectly sought control over the country’s remaining independent media, as is currently unfolding at the online news portal Index; and overhauled Hungary’s electoral laws,redrawing districts and implement a first-past-the-post system, to all but ensure a victory for his Fidesz party. Most of the recent attention internationally has focused on Orban’s new emergency powers, and on a new law punishing pandemic-related disinformation with up to five years in prison. But equally consequential have been the ways the pandemic has allowed Orban to accelerate a long-running effort to shift power from municipalities to the county and national level, as a way of undermining his political opposition.

“For Karacsony and other opposition politicians who’ve been elected to be mayors, this would be the opportunity where they have to prove themselves,” said Marta Pardavi, a co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a Budapest-based watchdog organization. “Proving yourself, of course, requires resources. … The space to act is limited, and the resources are limited.”

Although Budapest is by far Hungary’s biggest city, Karacsony’s experience is not unique. Other opposition mayors in big and small cities across the country are reporting similar issues and facing similar struggles to effectively govern in the wake of new budget cuts. Back in early 2018, when Peter Marki-Zay was elected mayor of the southern city of Hodmezovasarhely with support from all major opposition parties, his victory provided a blueprint for intraparty cooperation that led to last fall’s opposition gains.

The pandemic-era funding reallocations have hit Hodmezovasarhely hard as well: Marki-Zay said the city will lose 7 to 8 percent of its overall income for the year, which has led him to cut staff and put on hold various development projects he had planned. “It’s a huge blow. … It makes absolutely no sense, except as a political annihilation of opposition political cities,” said Marki-Zay, who founded the pro-opposition coordination movement Hungary for All. “They used the COVID crisis to conduct a smear campaign against opposition mayors and criticize us for anything. … We are very easy to blame.”

In addition to funding reallocations, Marki-Zay said he has struggled to get up-to-date information about new infections in his city, meaning mayors like him are flying blind when making local-level decisions about reopening. Over Easter weekend in April, Marki-Zay and other mayors were asked to decide themselves whether to open farmers markets and playgrounds—knowing only how many active cases there were in the whole county, not specifically within their cities. The opposition mayor in nearby Szeged chose to close farmers markets that weekend, Marki-Zay said, while he chose to keep them open. Both were blasted for their choices in the Orban-aligned media. Marki-Zay summed up the experience this way: “They really tie your hands and feet together, and throw you into the water,” he said. “And then you have to swim.”

In God, a municipality of about 20,000 just north of Budapest, the scale of the revenue losses is even more staggering. In addition to the same kinds of budget reallocations Budapest and Hodmezovasarhely faced, God faced another significant challenge when Orban’s government designated a Samsung battery factory in town a “special economic zone.” That means the factory and the tax revenues it brings in now belong to the Fidesz-aligned county council.

Csaba Balogh, God’s mayor from the opposition party Momentum, estimates that the municipality’s revenue losses between now and 2024 will add up to 50 billion Hungarian forints (about $170 million). “This year we are going to manage somehow … but in the long term, that’s really an enormous amount of money,” he said. “We could have such great achievements with this kind of money, but right now we don’t have that.”

Orban and his government say that their actions have been focused on combating the pandemic, and that the country’s low case count and death rates are proof their strategy has worked. Zoltan Kovacs, Orban’s international spokesman, told Foreign Policy that because Budapest is the wealthiest city in Hungary, Karacsony’s claims that the funding reallocations are unfair are politically motivated. “Nobody’s punishing anybody,” Kovacs said. “Any claims coming from the leaders of Budapest and the parties that some measures and steps are unjust toward Budapest, that we are punishing [them], is a political game on the national level.”

For the moment, the number of coronavirus cases in Hungary is relatively low, and things have begun returning to normal in the country, both politically and in Hungarians’ daily lives. The parliament voted in mid-June to formally lift the “state of danger” and Orban’s emergency powers, but it also approved a mechanism for such a state to be reinstituted in the future without the approval of parliament. With fears of a potential second wave of infections hanging over many European countries, how and when such a move will be made remains to be seen.

But Orban’s efforts to shift powers from local governments toward county and national governments are not new, and mayors and political observers say they expect further attempts to undermine the opposition—and the overall trajectory of Hungary’s democracy—if the virus returns. “These less-clear changes that people were not necessarily focusing on,” said Zselyke Csaky, the director of research for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House, “were the ones that were more insidious and more dangerous in some way.”

Emily Schultheis is a freelance journalist based in Berlin, where she writes about European elections and the rise of populism.