Government plans to restructure Budapest districts

September 11, 2016


“If there’s one thing to which Orbán is averse, it is Budapest and self-governance.” – Gergely Karácsony, Mayor, Budapest District 14

Big changes are coming to Budapest municipal government.

Plans to completely restructure the city’s administration have been circling since 2011, and they include radical shifts in the administrative bodies which currently govern the city, and plans which threaten to bypass the administrative and political balance within the city. Many district mayors, even those close to the governing party, are worried: For how long will Budapest retain its independent district governments?

For the past six years, Budapest has lost two-fifths of its HUF 500 billion (USD 1.82 billion) budget as well as HUF 500 billion worth of real estate assets, according to an article by weekly magazine 168 Óra. The city’s mayor, István Tarlós, officially a political independent, often finds himself at loggerheads with the national government, and the districts possess a degree of autonomy that threatens the supremacy of the national ruling party in the city, writes the print weekly.

The proposed changes seem to be a way to bring the troublesome city to heel. Many public services which the city used to control have already been nationalized. Every school in the country was recently brought under state control, and in light of the trend of widespread nationalization, it appears likely that the autonomy Budapest districts now enjoy might also be in the cross-hairs of the governing Fidesz party.

There are three plans for what kinds of changes could be instituted. The first involves the total disappearance of independent district governments and with them the district mayors. The mayors would be replaced by so-called Senior Officials, bureaucrats chosen and installed by the state and wielded as instruments of political power in the city. The second plan keeps the district mayors and assemblies, but would substantially curtail their powers and make them accountable to a strong city mayor, also to be appointed by the government. The third plan, the so-called “City-Plan” (Cityterv), would connect outer districts with downtown Pest districts, a move which would reduce the city from its current 23 to only six or eight districts.

Each plan is more hopeless than the last, says Zugló mayor Gergély Karácsony: “Why are eight bankruptcies better than 23? Not everything is from the devil of centralization, but I don’t believe that the problems the city faces now will be helped by ‘territorial surgeries’.”

6 versus 22

The aim of the proposed changes, however, does not seem to be about benefiting the city and improving its economic performance. János Atkári, deputy mayor to former Budapest mayor Gábor Demszky, put it this way: “Fewer governing bodies are easier to keep in your hands. Why keep so many pawns on the board if you can just simplify the game? The resources can also be shared with fewer players,” he told the print weekly.

Atkári believes that what exists now in Hungary is not what could truly be called “self government”, as the nominally independent governing bodies increasingly lack autonomy and the right to make decisions. Success does not come to those government leaders who do their jobs well, but rather to those who, even if they do their jobs poorly, have better political connections in the background, he says. The next step is to codify the weak position of local government into law, and consolidate political power in the capital by eliminating the districts.

“If there’s one thing to which [Prime Minister Viktor] Orbán is averse, it is Budapest and self-governance,” opposition mayor Karácsony said. The system isn’t perfect but “it’s something. It’s a democratic path on which we can travel.”