(Bloomberg Opinion) — With the election of Gergely Karacsony as mayor, Budapest joins a long list of big cities pitched against nationalist, populist and otherwise illiberal national governments. These cities, however, are largely powerless now to reverse countries’ policies which they abhor. By finding new ways to work together, though, these cities may find they can not only solve some of the thornier problems of urban life, but form an effective counterweight against authoritarian rule.
Though it has been run by Hungary’s governing party, Fidesz, ever since its leader Viktor Orban came to power in 2010, Budapest, with its large creative and intellectual class, has always felt uneasy about Orban’s authoritarian ways and crude nationalism. This year, Hungary’s fragmented opposition finally united around a single candidate, political scientist Karacsony, and he comfortably beat the Fidesz incumbent, Istvan Tarlos.
In Eastern Europe, where most countries are run by nationalist or populist governments, the dynamic capital cities tend to vote differently. In Poland, where the nationalist Law and Justice Party triumphed in Sunday’s national election, winning an outright majority in parliament, Warsaw backed the main opposition force, centered around the liberal Civic Platform party; since last year, the capital city has been run by a Civic Platform mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski. Zdenek Hrib from the liberal Pirate Party is the mayor of Prague, a city that has no love for populist prime minister Andrej Babis. Matus Vallo, the urban activist elected mayor of Bratislava last year, is no supporter of the country’s governing leftist-populist party.
That, of course, is part of a global trend: Big cities tend to stand out politically in countries where nationalists, populists and authoritarians win. Earlier this year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was forced to concede his loyal candidate’s defeat in the Istanbul mayoral election, and the new mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, has emerged as Erdogan’s top political rival. In Delhi, the Indian capital, an anti-corruption party opposed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi runs the legislative assembly. In the U.S., most big city mayors are opponents of President Donald Trump; in London, Mayor Sadiq Khan is a member of the opposition Labour Party. Even in Moscow, had it run an honest city council election this year, the ruling United Russia party could have lost its majority; President Vladimir Putin’s support in the Russian capital is always lower than the national average.
Authoritarians and populists find it easier to win in the heartland than in the big cities. The erosion of the local media makes rural areas and smaller cities more susceptible to propaganda. Corrupt local political networks operate under the radar. In Hungary, few media that reach the rural population aren’t under Fidesz control. Recently, when a blogger released video of Zsolt Borkai, the Fidesz mayor of Gyor, cavorting with prostitutes on a yacht in Croatia, the scandal hurt Fidesz support in Budapest (Tarlos even urged Borkai to resign to minimize damage to the party). But in Gyor, a city of 130,000 located halfway between Budapest and Vienna, Borkai won re-election on Sunday as Fidesz retained control over most of the key municipalities.
In countries with mature democratic systems, election results in big cities simply reflect the relative cosmopolitanism and higher education levels of their inhabitants. In authoritarian countries, however, there’s more to these results: Big city campaigns and the votes themselves are more transparent and thus likely fairer than in the provinces.
In addition to this enhanced political legitimacy of the big city leaders, the cities carry a disproportionately high economic weight. In 2015, the latest year for which data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are available, the Budapest metropolitan area contributed almost 46% of Hungary’s gross domestic product, one of the highest proportions among wealthy nations.
Based mostly on the oversized economic contribution of major cities, the business consultancy McKinsey predicted back in 2011 that “In this century, it will be the city, not the state, that becomes the nexus of economic and political power.” But this prediction is still a long way off being realized because nation states suppress cities’ political power – more so in authoritarian countries than elsewhere. In eastern Europe, national governments carve off economically weaker parts of large cities into separate regions to keep European Union subsidies flowing and at the same time assert their political influence. Budapest and Warsaw were recently separated from their suburbs for these purposes.
There’s not much mayors can do to resist national governments that try to weaken them. They can try to use the visibility of their position to win national office, following the examples of Jacques Chirac, a former mayor of Paris who went on to become president, Boris Johnson, whose popularity as mayor of London helped him move on to the national level, or, indeed, Erdogan, who was mayor of Istanbul before going on to run Turkey. But such successful transitions are relatively rare, perhaps because capital city mayors often have a hard time selling their success stories to provincial voters.
Increasing efforts at international cooperation and policy coordination reflect mayors’ dissatisfaction with their relative political weakness. U.S. mayors are trying to stay within the Paris Agreement climate guidelines despite Trump’s withdrawal from that pact. There are numerous subnational diplomacy programs involving mayors. In a brief last year for the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, Alyssa Ayres wrote of a “new city multilateralism” where mayors develop partnerships and share best practices.
Mayors who disagree with their national governments can use these platforms to work out how to resist. In eastern Europe, for example, the liberal city bosses could learn from the example of “sanctuary city” mayors in the U.S., who welcome immigrants in defiance of Trump’s tough line on immigration. There are enough “dissident” mayors now that they could try forming international united fronts on issues like policing and fighting corruption.
Cities also need to push for more powers within their nation states. It’s unfair both economically and politically that the urban centers of today don’t enjoy more of the freedoms and independence from national authorities that, for example, accrued to the merchant cities of old – like the Free and Hanseatic City of Luebeck, whose ancient self-government was only taken away by Adolf Hitler (as a questionable but widespread legend goes, as vengeance for the city’s refusal to let him campaign there in 1932).
Given the limited powers of mayoral authorities, voting in people like Karacsony will sometimes not feel like enough where people feel their rights or freedoms are being curtailed. This year’s Hong Kong protests in the face of China’s enormous pressure are an extreme but useful example. Even if the people of big cities cannot completely change their nation states, they can at least try to turn the urban centers into oases of relative liberty.
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Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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