Prior to the launch of the European Capital of Democracy, we spoke with Gergely Karácsony, Lord Mayor of Budapest, Hungary about the need for more civic education, the importance of diversity, and the power of cities to reform democracy.

Do cities have the power to defend democracy?

I hope that cities are not only strongholds, but also reformers of democracy. Both rural and urban populations have gone through a disillusionment process with neoliberalism and the old ways of representational democracy. This is largely the result of the financial crisis in 2008. To find a way out of the current crisis of democracy, we need to invest in citizens’ engagement. It is much easier to engage citizens in the political process at the local level, so cities can play a major role here. And, as we know, urban populations are more diverse, have more information available to them and have direct, more personal experiences regarding globalisation.

Which current developments will have the strongest impact on the development of society? 

I am optimistic about the growing power of social movements which fight against multiple crises such as climate change and social injustice. There is a lot of constructive anger that has the potential to bring about change. We need a critical mass of social activism that can reshape our economic and political discussions. It is unfortunate that we see much less social activism here in Central and Eastern Europe, but we can observe that this is improving. The climate movement has gained momentum, and its power will only increase given the gravity and dynamics of the crisis.

As to the impact of digitalisation on democracy, it is a double-edged sword. I have never seen such an alarming amount of misinformation in my life and it effectively targets large groups of society. This is the worst thing that can happen to democracy. The internet used to be seen as a platform for democracy and freedom, but it is frequently abused by the enemies of democracy. On the other hand, digitalisation gives us crucial tools for boosting democratic participation and engaging with electorates. We must take advantage of them.

What do you consider to be the biggest threat to democracy in your city?

Tribalism, the „us vs. them” mentality, and the complete absence of multi-faceted and nuanced public discussions are the biggest threat to democracy. One of the biggest threats in our case is the government’s intention to financially bleed out democratically elected municipalities. This has the potential to further damage the democratic process in Hungary. The government not only completely neglected the municipal level during the pandemic, it has also continuously cut back municipal funds as a political calculation. For the first time in the past ten years of Orban’s unchecked rule, the Fidesz party has experienced a significant defeat at the local elections last year. The democratic opposition won in half of the main cities and in the capital.

Fidesz is now constructing a narrative saying that our democratic coalition is not capable of providing a viable alternative to their governance at the national level. And they have very powerful tools in their hands as they control most of our revenues. We are hoping that the EU will recognise this problem and help channel EU funds directly to our city and others across Europe to equip us with the means to fight the pandemic, climate change, housing crises, and other key urban challenges. 

Which democratic processes or institutions should be improved to make democracy work better?

Everything that boosts participation and strengthens the community must be improved. One key component is the selection of candidates through primaries prior to the elections. Parties should empower voters to pick their own candidates, otherwise people feel left out and think that it is just the same old party politics going through the motions. I got selected through two rounds of primaries as the opposition’s joint candidate for Lord Mayor of Budapest. This process played a key role in winning back voters who otherwise would have stayed at home. The second key component is budgeting. For this very reason we are looking into participatory budgeting processes and will start our own pilot project in which citizens will have a say in shaping priorities.

From your experience as a political scientist, what are the policy areas you consider as being relevant for the democratic development in your city?

There are three policy areas I consider to be most relevant for the democratic development in my city. First, a new, robust climate policy is crucial, not only in Budapest, but everywhere. There is no other public policy issue which generates such a high level of public concern and direct engagement. This is particularly true in metropolitan areas and among younger generations, and it will only intensify as the crisis gets worse. To put it simply, people want genuine climate action and they are right. Politicians have to listen. 

Talking about Budapest and Hungary in particular, civic education is important for strengthening citizens’ resilience against illiberalism. From an early age on, we should learn about the division of powers, a free public space, and independent media as strongholds against authoritarian systems. We should learn more about how and why it is positive, not negative, that society is always divided regarding values, interests, and ways of life. Diversity is a strength. Very sadly, but unsurprisingly, the government has centralised public education, and you can probably guess to what extent democratic consciousness is featured in the national curriculum. 

Last but not least, I would like to highlight the importance of transparency. Transparency must frame all public dealings. The Fidesz government is anything but transparent, and people in this city are fed up with their rampant corruption. We want to counter this system and give priority to transparency to strengthen our democracy and build up our communities.