After two years of broken promises, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán finally made the two-hour trip to the southern city of Szeged on Monday to discuss developments in that city with its mayor László Botka. The visit was part of the Modern Cities Program, a scheme launched in early 2015 to provide EU development funds to each of Hungary’s 23 county seats for public projects such as swimming pools, roads and industrial parks. The Prime Minister’s Office had promised Botka eight times since 2015 that Orbán would pay a visit to Szeged to discuss the billions in developments before finally making the trip on Monday. Szeged is one of only four remaining Modern Cities not to have received a visit from Orbán in the last 18 months to implement the development funds and, perhaps not unrelatedly, Botka is the presumptive nominee of the Socialist Party (MSZP) for prime minister in 2018 elections and the only Socialist mayor of a major Hungarian city.
Orbán arrived before 8 o’clock Monday morning and was greeted on the steps of Szeged City Hall by Botka. Several protesters, victims of foreign currency loans, stood across the street with signs shouting “You sold us out! You sold us out!” (Eladtatok bennünket!) A man was spotted holding a sign which read, “God brought the Prime Minister to Szeged! I hope he takes him away quickly!”
Botka shook the prime minister’s hand and the men smiled at each other warmly, though there was reason to expect tension: Botka had made no secret that he considered Orbán’s visit overdue, and Orbán had previously called Szeged “the city of suppressed energies,” a slight to Botka’s Socialist leadership since 2002.
More tension was to be expected during a scheduled hour-long joint press conference. As per Modern Cities Program tradition, the conference would be directed by the hosting mayor, and Botka decided to allow independent press to attend and ask questions freely. It was the first time in recent memory that Orbán has held a press conference with an opposition leader, and was a departure from his years-long custom of not speaking to independent journalists.
The press conference
Orbán and Botka held a ceremonial signing of development agreements to kick off the press conference. Botka outlined a number of the planned developments, including a new bridge for the city, the renovation of city-owned rental properties, and the possibility of making Szeged the first Hungarian city with completely electric public transit. Botka said that “not only the EU’s money, but also its values are important to Szeged.”
Orbán, in a rare display of tolerance and goodwill, declared that “it’s the way it goes” that there are cities led by opposition politicians, and that situations sometimes arise where the prime minister must sign agreements with them. He said he would not be discussing “party politics” at the press conference.
Questions were then taken from journalists. When asked whether he supports a referendum to decide whether Budapest should host the 2024 Summer Olympics, Orbán said “the government takes note that the decision should be made in the form that the people want.” However, Orbán deflected a question asking whether he considered those signing petitions calling for a referendum on the matter “traitors.”
“I will only make a statement after the signatures are collected,” he said.
Prime Ministerial debate
MSZP announced this month that it would run Botka as its candidate for prime minister in 2018 elections, and the appearance of Botka in a public press conference beside Orbán prompted questions from journalists on whether there would be a public debate between the two men. Orbán did not participate in a debate against his prime ministerial opponents during 2010 or 2014 elections, and would only say of the possibility in the 2018 elections,
“Time will tell.”
Concerning his tendency to not hold debates with political opponents, Orbán said that much has been said about him during his years as prime minister, but that “no one can accuse me of cowardice.” There has not been a prime ministerial debate in Hungary since 2006.
Trump and a border wall for Hungary
Orbán declared his support for American President Donald Trump’s recent executive order which banned admittance of all refugees into America for 120 days, and placed a moratorium on visas for citizens of 7 Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and Africa. Orbán repeated his conviction that all countries have a right to make decisions which serve their interests, and said that the strengthening of Hungary’s southern border was “unavoidable.”
“We have a strategy, a plan for the protection of the country which is related to the physical protection of the border,” Orbán said. “The strengthening of the southern border is unavoidable, the construction of a new wall or fence is unavoidable, and it must be modern and effective.”
Magical mystery tour
After the press conference, Orbán reportedly visited the southern border with Serbia. Photographs of the visit later appeared on the Prime Minister’s Facebook page. Reports do not indicate whether he came into contact with any of the asylum-seekers trapped in “no-man’s-land” between the two borders during his tour.