One of the biggest surprises of the 2019 local elections was that Gergely Karácsony, the joint candidate of the Hungarian opposition parties, became the Lord Mayor of Budapest, our favourite city. Most of our readers are foreigners living in Budapest, foreigners who have already been in Budapest, and foreigners who plan to travel to Budapest. Last year was difficult not only because of the coronavirus epidemic but also because of the conflict with the government. Daily News Hungary asked the Lord Mayor about the successes and failures of the previous year, and we could get answers on some personal questions, as well as the Lord Mayor’s standpoint on the Airbnb issue.
- Let us start with a typical question: what are the three issues you are the proudest of from the past year?
I think the agreement we signed with the government about developing the healthcare system of Budapest is very important. Thanks to that, there are no waiting lists for CT and MRI diagnostics in the case somebody is suspected to have cancer. More and more people are adopting the idea of
creating a green and sustainable city.
Furthermore, the number of those commuting with bicycles rose significantly after we created new lanes and started to organise the already existing segments into a coherent system.
I also think that involving all citizens of the capital, civil organisations, and local communities in the decision-making process is another important step forward. Thanks to that, we could preserve more green areas in the Tabán, and we could reach a compromise in the case of the traffic on the Grand Boulevard.
- Besides the successes, there were probably setbacks as well. What were the biggest ones and what were the lessons?
Because of the coronavirus epidemic, we had trash plans, and due to the economic crisis, it meant we had to postpone a lot of development projects. Furthermore, the government chose not to help but to take away further financial resources from the capital.
I am very sorry that I could not make the government understand that their cooperation with the local governments had no alternative.
If we do not fight side by side, there can only be losers.
- What gigantic projects affecting tourists and tourism were inaugurated in the past one year?
Nobody can complete such projects in only one year, especially if we spend most of it fighting against the greatest epidemic of the last 100 years, and we still cannot see the end of that struggle. However, there are important developments we can inaugurate in the next couple of years. Even though it started to be a money consuming project, we could correct it and will finish the city zoo’s biodome which, together with the zoo, will be an attractive target for all tourists visiting the capital. We might finish that project before 2024 together with the building of the new Gellért Hill funicular which can help us get rid of the buses polluting the area. Meanwhile,
tourists can enjoy one of the most excellent views of our capital while they travel to the top of the hill.
I think that the renovation of the M3 metro line is also important. We will inaugurate its southern segment on October 22. Afterwards, we will start to renew the downtown section of the line, and soon we will be able to start the renovation of the Chain Bridge, one of the iconic symbols of our city.
- Airbnb revolutionised tourism and offered perfect opportunities for a lot of people planning to travel abroad since they could rent an apartment or a room much cheaper than in a hotel. Thanks to that, not only the wealthy but also the poor could travel. However, many metropolises already banned it while in Hungary, the Parliament allowed local governments to decide. What is your standpoint on the issue?
I agree that it is good if somebody can travel for less money, but I remember that before the outbreak of the epidemic, an Airbnb flat was more expensive than a hotel room. However,
what tourists see as a good opportunity is a difficulty for locals.
Airbnb flats significantly reduced offer on the long-term real estate rental market, causing a great increase in prices. Now, tourism broke down because of the virus and Airbnb flats are back in the rental market, so prices decreased. As the Lord Mayor of Budapest, I have to cope with the effects of the housing crisis. For example, there are many young people whose parents cannot buy a flat and they cannot pay rental prices because their salaries are not enough.
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It would be better to return to a sharing economy during which we share the spare capacities of our homes instead of running a hotel in the grey zone. It harms more people, and only a few benefit from it.
- The party district of Budapest attracts many Hungarians and foreign tourists alike but disturbs the everyday life of the locals. How can this problem be solved?
Tourism, which hopefully returns to Budapest next year, is important for Budapest, and its lack causes significant problems for our budget. However, locals entrusted me to represent their interests, just like Péter Niedermüller, the mayor of District 7, where the party district is. The downtown of the city became almost unlivable because of the pollution, the traffic, and the “bachelor party tourism” built on the low cost of alcohol in Hungary. District 7 started to
harmonise the different interests,
but it is not an easy task. It would be better if a new kind of tourism returned to Budapest after the epidemic. One that is not concentrated exclusively on the inner districts but spreads out everywhere in the city. Budapest has many treasures that are not on the postcards.
- When you welcome a foreign guest, what do you show them in Budapest?
I never leave out the Danube embankment. The river is a unique opportunity for our city, but we do not take advantage of it. I hope that shortly we will use the riverbanks differently.
- The capitals of the Visegrad 4 (Bratislava, Prague, Warsaw, Budapest) have a strong relationship. What successes can you name regarding this cooperation and what plans do you have?
My colleagues in Warsaw, Bratislava, or Prague and me are in the same boat. We are all progressive leaders of our community, but our governments are mostly right-wing populists. We have similar problems with similar solution proposals. For example, we turned together to the European Union, asking them to provide direct financial resources for the cities. As a result, we could skip the government’s approval, and
it would not depend on their goodwill to start developments.
Furthermore, we took a huge step ahead in the case of the EU’s financial support helping to ease the effects of the economic and social crisis caused by the epidemic since the rescue package already has a majority in the European Parliament.
- We took a look: Budapest currently has 18 twin cities which is a respectable number. How can a citizen living in Budapest benefit from this?
A friend in need is a friend indeed. This proverb is true about our twin city relationships as well. When the virus hit us and neither our social nor our healthcare institutions were prepared, our Chinese twin cities, Beijing and Shanghai, helped a lot and sent protective equipment for us.
We forwarded them immediately to our social institutions, retirement homes, and homeless shelters, so these probably
saved human lives.
We regularly speak with my Lord Mayor colleagues, for example, recently I talked with my counterpart in Berlin, Vienna, and Ankara.
- Budapest is a metropolis where a lot of people live. The number of foreigners who have chosen to live here exceed 100 thousand. How would you like to address them?
For example, with this interview. 😊 Budapest is an open, inclusive city, and we are very proud that so many foreigners have chosen to live here. It meant a lot that during the first wave of the epidemic, many societies like the Chinese and the Vietnamese offered their help to the city and provided thousands of masks, food, and helped social care.
- If you lived abroad, which city would you choose?
I like to live in Hungary, in Budapest. I would never live anywhere else, I feel at home here. There are many cities from which it is good to learn because leaders there pay attention to what locals say, and they understand the challenges brought by climate change. For example, Paris and Vienna.
- Turning to politics, let us look forward a bit. The cooperation of the opposition parties will probably define 2021, but there are still some debatable issues. Which one do you support: one opposition list or two lists? One or more candidates in the constituencies?
There is an agreement about one opposition candidate against the candidate of the government parties in the constituencies. That is an important baseline. Furthermore, the opposition parties started to write their program, which will enable us to present our offer to the citizens.
It is not enough to say we are not the Fidesz. We have to show the people what we would do differently in Hungary. We have to show how we would build a fairer, more liveable, and trustworthy country where not the people of the power but the power of the people govern.
- Who do you think will be your government-backed opponent in 2024? Fidesz probably has a well-designed strategy in this respect since the importance of the capital cannot be doubted. We think about four possible choices in this case: Balázs Fürjes, the Secretary of State responsible for the development of Budapest and its agglomeration, Zsolt Láng, the leader of Fidesz in the Budapest City Council, István Tarlós, the former Lord Mayor, and Dávid Vitézy, the director of the Budapest Development Centre. Which one do you think will be your challenger?
Those should make a decision in this matter whose task is to determine such things, I would not like to make guesses. But I can recommend primaries which were useful in our case.
- Finally, if you allow a personal question. Do you have a secret place in Budapest where you can hide to find inspiration or to relax?
It is hard to “hide” in the city because people recognise me everywhere, address me, and we talk. Provided I would like to relax, we go to the Balaton Uplands with my family where there are some secret places. We were there in the summer, I needed that.
Gergely Karácsony: born on 11 June 1975, he is a Hungarian political scientist, politician, and a member of the Hungarian National Assembly (MP) from 2010 to 2014. In 2014, he was elected the Mayor of Zugló (District 14). From October 13, 2019, he has been serving as the Lord Mayor of Budapest.