Mayoral avengers of populism

Can local governments and municipal leaders counter centralized, majoritarian populist national governments by creating an alternative “spaces to breathe” for politics? Looking at Budapest, Warsaw, Bratislava, Prague and Istanbul’s determined struggle for “freedom”; it looks like we will comeback to this question more and more in 2020-and beyond.

We are counting the days leading to the second decade of 2000’s. In a flash back, almost two decades ago these were times of high hopes for Central and Eastern Europe. Back then, “right-wing populism” was a fringe concept associated with “extremism”: only Austria’s Freedom Party’s Jörg Haider that popped into minds as a populist. Now, the question in the region and beyond is who isn’t under the influence of right-wing populism?

An innovative reply to the query came from the mayors of four central European capitals: Budapest, Brastislava, Prague and Warsaw. The mayors of the four biggest cities of Hungary, Slovakia, Czechia and Poland signed the “Pact of Free Cities” on December 16. 

In its most basic form, the pact is a framework of cooperation and solidarity against the populist national governments; based on the “common values of freedom, human dignity, democracy, equality, rule of law, social justice, tolerance and cultural diversity”. There is also call for collaboration to the European Union: Four mayors demand that the EU funds are allocated directly to their own municipal budgets. 

In other words, they ask their national governments to be bypassed due politicized apportionment and corruption.

The place signing ceremony took place was symbolic indeed: Central European University’s (CEU) campus in Budapest. As a reminder, CEU was compelled to transfer most of its course work and staff out of Hungary after a protracted saga of dispute with Viktor Orbán. The conflict between Orbán and CEU came to light when ruling Fidesz party passed a legislation in 2017 banning “foreign-registered universities that do not also offer the courses in the home country”.  Dubbed as the “CEU-law”, the legislation was initially disputed by the university, but eventually by November 2019, its Vienna based new campus had to be inaugurated. The quarrel between CEU and Fidesz is a crusade of Orbán against the university’s founder, billionaire financier George Soros-a useful target of populist rhetoric.   

Hence the symbolism of the venue: ousted university’s campus was the very place that the four mayors convened to sign the “Free Cities Pact”.  And it was Budapest’s new mayor Gergely Karácsony hosting the four mayors; Matúš Vallo of Brastislava, Zdeněk Hřib of Prague and Rafał Trzaskowski of Warsaw. As to be recalled, Karácsony is the politician scoring the biggest victory against Orbán this May by ending Fidesz rule in the Municipality of Budapest since 2010. 

The Pact is no lip service: Four mayors are indeed striving to create a novel and innovative political understanding. They are pledging to committing to “coordinating efforts to advocate city-tailored solutions in the European policies, especially in the Cohesion Policy, European employment, environmental, climate, energy, transport and economic policies, as well as during the legislative construction of the European Pillar of Social Rights.”

They also vowed to “share best practices in smart, evidence-based and socially aware city management, especially in the field of sustainable city planning, climate protection, social inclusion, housing, transportation, the digital agenda or any other field of mutual interest.”

All four mayors are young, cosmopolitan, well-educated, tolerant, non-discriminating and receptive. In a way, opposite of the populist leaders they are contesting. 

Their political backgrounds are diverse. Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib is a physician and activist from the anti-establishment Pirate Party. Matúš Vallo is an architect, urban activist, musician: he is the task master and team leader of a team of independent technocrats called “Team Vallo”-so actually, a squad of experts is now running Bratislava. Warsaw’s Rafał Trzaskowski is a former minister from the center-right Civic Platform, and political scientist specializing in European studies.

Prague’s Zdeněk Hřib says; “We do not want to be defined as a force against something, but rather as a pro-European, positive alliance, which is also open to other cities.” 

While they may not define themselves as “against” something; somethings and “someone”s are clear against them. At least those representing “old politics” in their countries’ national politics. 

Money talks

As aforementioned there is also the financial aspect. “Pact of Free Cities” made a call to Brussels:

“We, the mayors of Bratislava, Budapest, Prague and Warsaw hereby commit to supporting and jointly advocating towards EU institutions, agencies and decision makers prospective EU urban programs that would provide more direct funding for European cities.”

Funding issue is crucial for the opposition municipalities cornered by the ruling populist leaders domineering both the national politics and the budgets. 

Plight of the Istanbul’s new mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu toured European capitals like London, Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen for establishing friendly networks, and also wooing credit. İmamoğlu announced at the end of November that the city of Istanbul secured 110 million euros of financing from Deutsche Bank for finishing up the metro project of Çekmeköy-Sultanbeyli. Transport projects connecting diverse parts of gigantic city has been the pride of AK Parti and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan since their almost two-decades of rule. But now, now that Istanbul changed leadership, in İmamoğlu’s words, "State banks are not even extending routine loans after the elections to Istanbul municipality. The doors of state banks are closed to [the Istanbul Municipality].”

İmamoğlu reportedly mentioned to international creditors that Istanbul needs at least 20 billion liras (around 3 billion euros) for funding new projects; and more than half of is required for continuing with development of the subway. As a cherry on the icing, Istanbul already has around 28 billion lira of debt (4,2 billion euros). According surveys, “traffic” is regarded as the “number one problem” by Istanbul’s population by a wide margin. İmamoğlu would establish a historic legacy if he is able to solve Istanbul’s traffic problem. 

Previously I questioned in this column whether “the metropolis be the savior that rescues politics from populism?”:

“Can local governments and municipal leaders counter centralized, majoritarian populist national governments by creating an alternative “spaces to breathe” for politics? And if, in other cases, if populist movements are not in power, can local governments create a viable alternative against the rise of populist movements?”

Looking at Budapest, Warsaw, Bratislava, Prague and Istanbul’s determined struggle for “freedom”; it looks like we will comeback to this question more and more in 2020-and beyond. Here, there, elsewhere; and everywhere in the world as new politics struggle to set themselves from the chains and obstacles set by the aging and corroding “old guard” populists. 

September 29, 2021 A post-Merkel Turkey