Little hearts against Orbán

by Martin Fejer

Finally! (Issue I/2020)

The councillor’s bicycle is often to be seen. But when the weather’s too brutal, András Pikó gets the number 99 bus to Holy Trinity Square, where the Matthias Church stands, and then walks the last bit to the town hall on Baross Street. Tessza Udvarhelyi, his former campaign manager, is waiting for him there. She is now an advisor on citizen engagement and is shaking up the department, streamlining it for transparency and accessibility.

What sounds like a fairytale in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has been, from October 13th 2019, the truth. Most of Budapest’s local districts and many other towns were won by combined opposition parties. Gergely Karácsony, standing on a left-wing–green platform, became the capital’s mayor, and András Pikó won in the Eighth District, known as Józsefváros, standing as an independent. His five-party coalition now has 11 out of 17 councillors. He himself came out of the citizen’s movement known as “C8” – C for civil society, 8 for the district’s name.

What neither money nor media attention elicited, ingenuity supplied. Every other week Pikó, joined by residents and professionals, strolled through the district’s neighbourhoods, with hundreds watching a live stream on Facebook. Yet more voters fill in questionnaires that inquire about their concerns and problems. There are pop-up events calling for bus stops and pedestrian crossings. Pikó would bike from one street to another or call on people door to door. Before deciding to stand as a district councillor, he was a presenter and journalist on the small radio station “Klubrádio”, sympathetic to the opposition. 

“After pressure from the ruling party, the electoral commission filed a complaint and, 24 hours later and shortly before the election, the police occupied the laundry and seized every computer.”

But the campaign machine of the incumbent Fidesz party gradually began to get up speed. Local authority trucks with hydraulic arms put up billboards with the name of the Fidesz candidate, Botond Sára, and the less than inspiring legend “Order, Security, Development”. The street cleaners were also busy, scrubbing away little painted hearts with “I love the Eight!” sprayed on the pavements during the night by C8 supporters. But not only was the entire city authority working for the main party, the Fidesz’s agit-prop department also entered the fray. Letterboxes filled up with pamphlets, and social media accounts filled up with anti-opposition trolling.

Late one evening, Tessza the campaign manager took the election’s most arresting photo. Of five activists in an old laundry in a dilapidated backyard which served as C8’s headquarters. They were checking a list of supporters’ signatures that each election candidate has to submit. Hundreds of sheets of paper needed to be handed in to the electoral commission the following morning. Tessza posted the picture on Facebook’s closed C8 group page. But a troll had infiltrated the group page forwarded the photo to the Fidesz-supporting press, writing that data about voters was being unconstitutionally tampered with in the Eighth District. After pressure from the ruling party, the electoral commission filed a complaint and, 24 hours later and shortly before the election, the police occupied the laundry and seized every computer.

What Fidesz had hoped to be the deciding blow backfired. Suddenly, “Pikó and his gang” were on everybody’s lips. Even the international media were reporting on the first orchestrated police action since 1989 on an opposing party in an election.

Meanwhile, the old laundry has now become a working space. C8 appoints experts to committees and is working on plans for socially sustainable living spaces, transforming public transport and climate protection. Since losing the local elections, the state government is trying to further squeeze local autonomy and is rewriting the election rules to make it all but impossible for the opposition to win parliamentary elections due in 2022. The path to democratic renewal in Hungary has just got longer. This won’t depend on possible EU sanctions; it has to come from below. 

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