Gergely Karácsony, the new Mayor of Budapest, was elected by more than 50 percent of the vote on the 13th of October. In addition to winning the race for the mayorship, the opposition now has a majority in the Budapest City Council too. This was not just an important victory for the green politician, but for the whole opposition, which after a 13-year spell of political setbacks won not just many districts in Budapest, but also several key cities across the country. We spoke with the newly-elected Mayor of Budapest about the current state of the Hungarian green movement and the possible strategies for the opposition.
- How do you feel as the first green Mayor of Budapest?
The green movement has a long history in Hungary and have been working 10 years for this change to happen. It is a superb feeling to see that we have reached this milestone. The long-awaited green transition is finally taking place: not only is the Mayor of Budapest green now, but the mindset of Budapest residents is also changing and becoming increasingly green.
- How can you describe green policies in Budapest in the past? What did you inherit from your predecessor?
Green issues were not prioritized under the mayoralty of my predecessor, István Tarlós, so we have to act as soon as possible to advance the green transition. The residents of Budapest and the professional organizations did have a common understanding of the green agenda, and some very good proposals have been put forward. Experts have action plans. They were ignored by the city administration before, but we will implement them now.
- Besides declaring a climate emergency, can you specify what your most relevant green ideas are?
My green action plan has three focal points. First, I would like to highlight our energy program for residents. Our goal is to avoid wasting energy by modernizing the heating system and insulation. Second, we have a strong landscaping program. It has two flagship projects: a big city park in Budapest, which will characterize the capital for decades to come, and a green corridor that will connect Margaret Island, Roman Beach and Hajogyari Island. Besides these large-scale projects it is also important to create new green spaces in every corner of the city. For this purpose we will start a courtyard greening program, a tree-planting program on the streets, and we will plant a tree after the birth of each new child in Budapest. The third focal point is the public transport system, which we see as a tool to advance the green transition. We want to improve public transport, cycling and walking, and we will provide better opportunities for residents to get around the city in an eco-friendly way.
- How will Budapest finance these projects?
We are talking about diverse projects, some of them just depend on cultural change - it is not very expensive to create new bicycle lanes, this is a question of political will. Much more funding is needed to improve public transport, but there are existing governmental and EU funds for that which were used by our predecessors and will be used by us too. Besides, we expect more energy-related funds to be allocated directly for municipalities in the next EU budget.
- Previously you stated that your administration will try to get more direct funds from the EU, to steer clear of governmental influence. As mayor, are you still confident about those plans?
During my campaign I had a chance to visit Frans Timmermans and Nicolas Schmitt in Brussels. They will both have important portfolios in the upcoming European Commission. In those meetings they promised me that the European Union will increase the amount of direct funds for local authorities. Therefore, I have no reason to lose confidence about those plans.
- Would you like to develop new diplomatic ties in the EU, independently of the Government of Hungary?
In my opinion, regional cooperation is crucial. We would like to work together closely with the capitals of the region. We are facing similar challenges, not just in regard to the climate crisis, but also in regard to that specific Central and Eastern European political challenges that are appearing most significantly in Hungary and Poland. Budapest, Warsaw, or Prague, for instance, have major roles to play in implementing green, progressive policies in this region. We would also like to play a more active role within the field of innovation and technology compared to the last several years.
- The Hungarian Government has been attacking NGOs during the past three years. Can we expect a different attitude toward NGOs from the newly-elected mayors and the authorities of Budapest?
It is clear that we would like to have closer cooperation with these organizations than our predecessors had. Some of my team members come from the NGO scene and will work directly on strengthening our relationships. I would regard it as a grave mistake not to use the very special knowledge that these NGOs have, so obviously they will be involved in the decision- making processes.
- You declared a couple of times recently that you want to pursue a peaceful, cooperative relationship with the ruling Fidesz party and the Hungarian Government. How do you imagine this cooperation?
As the Mayor of Budapest, and the mayor of every resident of Budapest, my job is to act in the best interest of our residents, including in relation to the Government. It is up to the Government whether they listen to what the people of Budapest want or whether they will choose a confrontational path. I am certain that the Government does not want to fight against the will of Budapest residents. The Government cannot really compete with the strength of the Budapesters. Therefore, I strongly believe that the Government will be as cooperative as it can be, and the Government's recent statements confirm my expectations.
- Meanwhile, on 23 October extremists marched in the streets of Budapest, attacked Auróra, a Jewish Community Center, and burned a rainbow flag. As a mayor, how can you combat extremist violence?
We must reject extremist violence in the strongest, toughest, clearest and firmest way possible. The most important thing is to lead by example. We must build a tolerant, open-minded city where violence never happens, where people say a definite “No” to provocation. It was not a coincidence that my election program was named Budapest for Everyone! I envision a city that is everyone’s home. No distinction should be made between the residents of Budapest on the basis of their origin, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.
- What could poison the cooperation of the opposition after this successful election?
The cooperation that has brought about success for progressive and green politics in the capital and in some of the county-level capitals is stronger than ever, as recent weeks have shown. In my opinion we have no reason to doubt that this cooperation will remain as successful as it was during the municipal elections.
- Looking ahead to the national elections in 2022, can this success be decisive in the parliamentary election in 2022?
It has become obvious that there is an alternative to the Fidesz party, and there is life outside the so-called “System of National Cooperation”. The leftist and green ideology of the opposition parties now have support not just in Budapest, but also in other big cities across Hungary. This could lead to success in 2022, because by then voters in the big cities will see and experience the alternative to today’s repression and injustices.
- Your election is a great green success for Hungary and for the whole region. Meanwhile polls have shown an outright decline in the Hungarian green parties (Dialogue, Politics Can Be Different). How can you explain that, and how do you see the future of green politics in Hungary?
The support for political parties always keeps changing, there is nothing extraordinary in that. I would debate whether these parties enjoy low support, since Dialogue not only gave us the Mayor of Budapest, but the mayor of a city district too, which is a big step forward. I would say that by now Hungarian greens are a force to be reckoned with. Let’s just keep in mind that all parties, some of them without any such past, embrace green proposals to meet voter expectations. Regardless of this, green parties are needed anyway, so the existence of Dialogue and Politics Can Be Different is the guarantee for the survival of green ideas in Hungary. In some of the Budapest districts these two parties have started to work together, I hope it will become more common in the future.
- If it were up to you, would Hungary have a green Prime Minister as well?
I was elected Mayor of Budapest by the voters of the capital, this role is my duty now. However, I will do all I can to make sure that Hungary gets a Government that puts the green agenda front and center.
Interview is made by Andras Szeles.
Proofreading by Gwendolyn Albert.