Let’s step outside of Budapest for at least a day to take a look at local politics as it has been playing out in the “provinces.” In Hungary everything outside of Budapest is in the realm of the “provinces” (vidék), including fair-sized cities like Debrecen, Szeged, and Pécs. In these cities we can see first-hand how “national politics” is being translated into action on the local level. What we witness in these places is a raw, unedited version of political reality in all its brutishness.
The Open Society Foundation’s decision “to get closer” to trouble spots triggered vigorous government counter-propaganda. There are two especially poverty-stricken regions in Hungary: the southernmost areas of Transdanubia and the northeastern region of the Great Plains. Thus, OSF, after looking for civic groups with a lengthy, solid track record, picked two, one in Pécs and the other in Debrecen, to be in charge of allocating money from the block grant they receive to smaller local groups. All grants will be handled locally and independently from OSF. Each of these two centers will receive $130,000, which will be used for projects dealing with poverty, education, and public health. In Pécs, the NGO that will be responsible for the allocation is the Emberség Erejével Alapítvány/EEA (With Force of Humanity Foundation) while in Debrecen the Alternatív Közösségek Egyesülete (Association of Alternative Communities) was chosen for the job.
The local reaction in both places was immediate, with one big difference. Debrecen is a Fidesz city through and through, and therefore the opposition to having a “pseudo-civic” group in town was actually a grass roots movement, or at least it seems to be. Somebody began a Facebook page called “We don’t want a Soros office in Debrecen,” which since December 7 has gained 2,867 followers. Pécs is a different cup of tea. There the local Fidesz leadership has been totally discredited in the last few years, and there is growing opposition to Zsolt Páva, the mayor since 2009, whose leadership practically bankrupted the city. Although Fidesz won the two parliamentary seats from Pécs in 2014, it was only with a slim majority. In fact, if LMP hadn’t entered its own candidate, both seats might have been gone to the joint opposition. As far as I know, there was no enthusiastic popular opposition to the grant given to the Pécs NGO, which has been in existence since 2006 and is well known in town. Fidesz city leaders had to do the dirty work alone.
I’m in luck in my quest for information about local Pécs politics because recently a news site critical of the government was created by two journalists who had lost their jobs after Lőrinc Mészáros took over the local paper. These two inform the world what’s going on in the city. They have paid special attention to the uproar that Fidesz propaganda created around the grant to EEA.
As soon as OSF announced its plans for the two regional centers, Fidesz countered that George Soros’s latest charitable gift is simply money provided to organizations that will be taking an active part in the election campaign against the governing party. The two Fidesz MPs from Pécs instructed Mayor Zsolt Páva to do his best to thwart the Foundation’s plans to hand out money to the poverty-stricken regions around Pécs. Páva gave interviews to local papers and the radio station in which he accused Soros and the “pseudo civilians” of supporting the opposition in the coming election campaign.
I should note in passing that Péter Hoppál, one of the two Fidesz MPs from Pécs who delivered the word from Budapest, has made a fabulous career in national politics since 2010. Prior to that time he was active in local politics. He was trained as a musician, with a concentration in sacred music and conducting, and his field of study is the Hungarian Reformed musical tradition. He was employed as a chorister and teacher at the Hungarian Reformed Gymnasium in Pécs. Eventually, he became the principal of the institution. His choir, by the way, became quite well known, performing in 16 different countries. He could also boast of 14 recordings. Currently, he serves as undersecretary in charge of culture in the ministry of human resources.
On December 7 Hoppál gave a press conference in Pécs in which he announced that the city’s Fidesz organization is planning to submit a draft resolution on December 14 to the city council that will reject in the name of the city’s inhabitants the establishment of a “Soros campaign center” in Pécs. But Hoppál, the good Christian, didn’t stop here; he added that, “if possible, the people of Pécs shouldn’t even rent space” to this charitable organization.
Just as promised, the Pécs city council dutifully voted in favor of the resolution. The council has 27 members, 19 of whom are Fidesz affiliates. The rest is a varied lot: two represent MSZP-Együtt-PM; one, Demokratikus Koalíció; two, Jobbik; one, LMP; and two, a local civic group called “Cooperation for Pécs.” I would have thought that these eight would all have voted against the resolution. But no, they decided not to vote at all. Only the two Jobbik members demanded the removal of the item from the agenda. The LMP city father even suggested modifications to the resolution.
On the very same day, the owners of Nappali Bár on Pécs’s Váci utca, who had verbally agreed with the Emberség Erejével Alapítvány to rent them a gallery above their bar, announced their reluctant decision to rescind the offer at the insistence of the owner of the property, who was afraid of the possible consequences of having EEA’s office in his building. Soon thereafter, OSF published a statement regarding the developments in Pécs, in which they contended that the resolution the Pécs city council passed was an open violation of the constitution’s guarantee of freedom of expression and assembly. “These intimidating tactics evoke the darkest period of Hungarian history,” the statement concluded. EEA people are convinced that eventually they will have a roof over their heads because they have received offers of office space from several people.
The story didn’t end here. On Saturday there was, by Pécs standards, a fairly large demonstration, a small part of which can be seen on video. In addition, at least two open letters were addressed to the two Fidesz MPs from Pécs and Zsolt Páva. One of the authors was Zoltán Bretter, a political science professor at the University of Pécs, who knows Páva well from his earlier life in politics. Bretter (SZDSZ) was a member of parliament between 1990 and 1998. From Bretter’s letter one gets the impression that Páva was at one point a decent man, who by now has sunk to “cheap Soros-bashing” and who “became one of the glorifiers of Orbán under Conductor Hoppál.” Yes, he wrote, there are people who are toxic, and Viktor Orbán is one of them. Another open letter was signed by 13 well-known public figures who used to or still live in the city. It was addressed to MPs Péter Hoppál and Péter Csizi, whom they call “inglorious executors of the government party’s most disgusting campaign.”
Fidesz’s merciless attack on civil society here and there still finds brave souls who oppose it, but, unfortunately, fear is spreading everywhere. In the “provinces” civic life seems even more threatened than in the nation’s capital.