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Cities as Democracy’s New Laboratories

At the local elections last year, Hungary’s democratic opposition parties made significant gains against Viktor Orbán’s illiberal ruling Fidesz party and its state-sponsored propaganda machine. As a result, 11 big cities went to the opposition and about one-third of all voters now live in opposition-led municipalities.

For the first time, an ideologically varied and often quarrelling democratic camp accepted electoral reality and fielded joint candidates. They gave one voice to Hungary’s pro-European population. Voters were thrilled by a united campaign against Orbán’s decade-old monopoly on power underpinned by a manipulated media landscape, a variety of legal and administrative fixes, and massive EU transfers that kept the economy afloat while enriching Orbán’s oligarchs.

Close cooperation is the first important take-away from this success. Democratically minded politicians do themselves and their voters enormous good if they step beyond narrow political identities and unite against the greater danger of illiberalism.

In Budapest there was also another key component: the democratization of the selection process for candidates. As another first, the opposition organized primaries empowering voters to decide who would be running for lord mayor, the public office that I am honoured to hold today.

Grassroot democracy will be key to protecting and deepening democracy not only in Hungary, but across Europe. The lesson from Budapest is that the remedy to the democratic crisis is a bottom-up, participatory adjustment to the political process in general.

We in Budapest’s city government regards citizens’ engagement as one of our signature issues. Right after assuming office, we set ourselves to design a participatory budgeting process. Of many good examples, we looked into Paris’s, and sent our experts to bring home a workable blueprint. As a pilot exercise, residents will have a say in distributing approximately €3 million of public funds between three baskets (“green”, “solidary”, “infrastructure”). This novel process that we plan to scale up will deepen our democracy, strengthen our community, and create a more equitable distribution of public resources. As a collateral benefit, it will also make a stark counterpoint to the national government’s infamous and totally empty “national consultations.” 

Another case in point is the planned Budapest Climate Assembly that was due in April but had to be put off because of the pandemic. Fifty citizens, selected out of 10,000 residents who had applied through a civic lottery, will work together with experts and policymakers to develop the city’s climate strategy.

This is all the more important because the climate crisis is not only the single biggest threat to mankind, but—paradoxically—it also has huge potential to strengthen democracy. A large and ever-growing swath of society demands bold climate action and march in our cities to make us politicians listen. Over climate, society and a forward-looking political class can strike the big new deal of our time. In fact, democracy and climate action go hand in hand.

But subsidiarity in climate policy must be strengthened by all means to make that happen. Due to their pro-climate action electorates and heavy share in emissions, cities are willing and able to drive Europe’s green transition. But they can only do so if resourced properly. This is why Budapest, together with dozens of other European cities, is lobbying the European institutions to allocate directly accessible, green urban funds.

To strengthen democracy and protect liberalism, we are also building strong, cross-border alliances. When the Iron Curtain fell, Hungary, Poland, and then-Czechoslovakia took the lead in championing freedom and human rights in our region. Sadly, much has changed since then. Right-wing populists in Hungary and Poland have practically dismantled liberal democracy and upended our free, pluralistic public sphere. The Visegrád Group has often become a destructive alliance, blocking or watering down important decisions at the EU level.

This reactionary U-turn does not reflect the values and aspirations of so many in our countries. There is another face to Central Europe than that of Orbán and Jarosław Kaczynski. Together with my fellow mayors from Bratislava, Prague, and Warsaw, we have formed the Pact of Free Cities alliance to show that other face, and stand up for an inclusive, positive, pro-European vision. It is important to note that we come from varied political backgrounds. But we are all committed to liberal democracy, humanism, and internationalism. And we will not stop here. The pact is an open network that we want to take beyond Central Europe. We are approaching like-minded mayors of European cities and beyond to expand our alliance and strengthen the voice of urban populations.

To complement and further enhance the pact, we are also planning to establish an annual Budapest Forum on Building Sustainable Democracies from the fall of 2021, focusing on a range of critical challenges from the effects of climate change on democratic institutions to the impact of artificial intelligence and robotization on our societies, with a strong emphasis on constructive solutions to these challenges.

Like so many others, I am worried about the declining state of democracy and human rights around the globe. Yet I am also hopeful that progressive-led cities are becoming the laboratories of renewed and more resilient democratic structures. They are well suited to do so. In cities, there is a close, living connection between community and local governance. In cities, there live progressive, multicultural populations that cherish freedom and diversity, and are eager to drive change for more prosperous and inclusive societies.

This is what we are working to achieve in Budapest. We invite our friends to work together to achieve Democracy 2.0. 

Gergely Karácsony is the lord mayor of Budapest. Along with two of the other Central European mayors behind the much-discussed “Pact of Free Cities,” Karácsony will join Brussels Forum 2020 for the session, “Cities Can Save Democracy.” This session will explore the role of cities in strengthening democracy and how international engagement can support this effort. Register for the event here.

Featured image: 

Photo Credit: ZGPhotography / Shutterstock

Research and analysis for: 
GMF Cities

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