The great question of 2020 was how Orbán would react to the local election defeat of October 2019. On the one hand, a strongman must punish every form of resistance. On the other, there were too many people living in opposition cities now – can Orbán attack 3.7 million people them without alienating too many voters?
But that’s the wrong question.
The question is whether this demonstration of power will be interpreted as a reason to stop resisting – or the opposite, that they should resist harder.
The emergence of an autocracy means that the strongman pushes stronger and stronger – and every single time the victims have to decide whether to resist or give in. But after the first time they give in, it gets harder and harder to start resisting. The stakes are higher, the punishment steeper, the strongman stronger than he was at the beginning. It is always a life-or-death issue for an autocrat to punish resistance and to teach us that resistance is futile. He sometimes even punishes resistance showing up in opinion polls. He definitely punishes resistance showing up in election results.
It is nearly impossible to find any pandemic-rationale behind most Covid-decrees, but they all make sense if we look at them from the political angle and see them as tools of punishing opposition cities and removing local autonomy, to be replaced with conditional, discretionary financial assistant directed exclusively to loyal cities.
Local authorities’ autonomy has been seriously cut back in 2010, when Orbán rewrote the constitution. Most importantly for us, they have not been allowed to go into debt without the government’s permission since then – an understandable move that nonetheless increases their political dependence. They have also lost much of their revenues, like a share of the personal income taxes. They have also lost competencies like issuing local building permits, which is now at the government for some odd reason. If local authorities retained any autonomy under Orbán, it was because they were almost all led by Fidesz mayors anyway – with the notable exception of Szeged. Now that they became a thorn in Orbán’s side, they can expect their relevance to be cut back further.
Take free parking, for instance. Orbán has taken away plenty of revenues from cities (especially Budapest) early on during the pandemic, while demanding they paid for various extra services. And when one day someone from Budapest city hall complained that they are down to parking fees as their only revenue, Orbán needed to hear no more. The next day he gleefully made parking free by decree – and it will remain so for the foreseeable future.
Or take the cut in local authorities’ tax revenues, paired with a ‘tax stop’, forbidding them to increase taxes or the prices of public services. (The ‘tax stop’ might have been a revenge for Budapest mayor’s campaign promise to levy a new tax targeted at loyalist oligarchs, named after Orbán’s son-in-law, who owns luxury real estate in Budapest.)
In another case, the Samsung factory in the town of Göd had been declared a special economic zone, like we are in North Korea or something, just because Göd elected an opposition mayor.
An example was made of the city of Eger. After a particularly inane mistake by Fidesz, Eger was lost to an opposition candidate in October 2019. But Eger is part of the electoral district that was the battleground in the byelection in October 2020, when Orbán’s 2/3 supermajority was at stake. The opposition mayor of Eger made gestures to secure funding for his city, because a responsible mayor cannot be against Orbán. He left his party and during the campaign he supported the Fidesz candidate.
During the campaign ministers and state secretaries visited the district in great numbers supporting the Fidesz candidate. She spent more on Facebook only than her entire campaign allowance, but for Fidesz it is not a limitation to be taken seriously. Visiting luminaries handed out potatoes and free laptops and promised all sorts of investments if the Fidesz candidate wins. She won.
But how to reward the district without giving money to its biggest city, Eger (population: 52 000)? The solution: giving an enormous sum to the small town of Tokaj (population: 3 900). After the election, Tokaj was awarded more than 400 million euros in EU funds, which is the equivalent of half of Budapest’s pre-pandemic annual budget (population: 1.7 million).
A village of 3900 people received EU funds equivalent of half of Budapest’s annual budget (population 1.7 million) as a gift for loyalty to Orbán.
Eger’s mayor wasn’t rewarded for his gestures. A month after the byelection he was forced to allow the ministry’s candidate to take over the city theatre, even though the city council voted in another director. Had he resisted the ministry, he would have had to repay nearly a million euros and received no money to run the theatre next year.
But the worst hit was Budapest.