How the Greens won Budapest

Electoral success for the left almost invariably flies in the slipstream of growing social movement power. And so it is in Budapest. On Saturday, I found myself at what many told me was one of the biggest anti-fascist demonstrations in recent years.

An annual protest against a neo-Nazi commemoration, normally, only a handful of people show up. This year, there were hundreds.

One of them was Jenő, a Romani organiser I first met in 2018. When we spoke then, he talked about how he worked hard to make sure he showed up to protect other people’s rights – from LGBTQI protests to feminist events to Jewish commemorations. That way, he said, he hoped they would show similar solidarity when his people needed it. Roma flags were as common at the demo as anti-fascist banners.

The year-old Extinction Rebellion Hungary were there, as were students, academics, old socialists, young anarchists, and a loud samba band who had gathered from across Europe.

Lurking at the back of the protest was the American journalist Justin Spike, who has lived in Budapest for around a decade. This week, he’s written on the website 444 about the rise of this new movement of movements: feminists, environmentalists, refugee and migrant groups and housing activists:

“This movement, divorced from both the right-wing populism of Fidesz and the neoliberalism of some of the opposition parties, set out to use horizontal, democratic organization… [it] eschewed electoral politics, pursuing instead a strategy of institution-building which they hoped could provide for the common welfare and represent a solidarity-based, sustainable alternative to mainstream politicking.

The movement, Spike argues, filled “the void” left by the endlessly fracturing and failing opposition parties, and with some modest success, could be replicated elsewhere.

Forever blowing bubbles: the limits of Orbanomics

There is another way to see all of this though – something which, strangely, none of the politicians or activists I talked to raised: house prices in Budapest have doubled in the last five years. The number of renters in the country has increased by 50% over the ten years of Fidesz rule, with owner occupiers falling from 90% to 85% since 2010. 

This housing bubble didn’t just inflate by chance. Some of Orbán’s most famous policies include significant subsidies for buyers, pumping cash into the market which will ultimately inflate prices and end up in the pockets of those with assets to sell.

Since 2016, base interest rates have been slashed to less than 1%, and those with spare cash will be pumping it into the property market. Without regulation on AirBnB, whole stairwells in the capital’s imperious centre have been turned over to tourists.

In January 2018, the central bank pumped petrol into this engine, printing money and buying up mortgaged backed securities in a form of quantitative easing.

Fidesz has turned the Hungarian economy into a conveyer belt carrying cash from the wages of young working class people into the pockets of those who can afford to trade on the property market: the upper middle class, a new group of domestic oligarchs and, if the rumours are correct, Chinese and Gulf speculators – the powerful are having their pockets lined, and repaying the favour in a cynical political circle.

Likewise, those who own their own home will mostly see it’s price go up and feel more financially secure. Property bubbles keep the electorate happy – for a while.

This isn’t unusual: travelling across Istanbul in 2016, I was astounded to see a forest of cranes, with flimsy but flashy skyscrapers going up on every roadside. That year, the Telegraph had listed the city in the top ten places in the world to buy-to-let. Property prices had risen by 42% in five years, and Erdogan’s polling rose with them.

Ireland has seen a similar phenomenon: house prices in central Dublin doubled between 2012 and 2019

And just like in Budapest, establishments in both Istanbul and Dublin have discovered that there are losers in a housing bubble, as well as winners: for the dozen years since the banks collapsed, working class millennials have been running on a treadmill which drives the rise of an oligarch class.

Erdogan’s AKP lost control of Istanbul and Ankara last spring in shock election results. Fidesz lost control of Budapest in the autumn in shock election results. And the Fianna Fáil Fine Gael duopoly which has governed Ireland suffered a shock loss to Sinn Fein this weekend. (The UK, on the other hand, where the Brexit-fearful housing market has been decidedly stagnant, has seen the government secure a surprisingly large majority – not that there weren’t other factors at play).

They’re not there… yet

No progressive party has yet managed to fully articulate the failures of Fidesz. None has fully captured the energy of young anger. Orbán is still way ahead in the polls and there is every likelihood that his Fidesz will win the 2022 election. 

But in the meantime, those who have lost from the housing bubble will continue to anger. Movements will blossom and put down roots, forcing opposition parties to follow them. And one day, when few are expecting it, the Hungarian housing bubble will make like bubbles do. 

The question is, will anyone have the power to step in when it does? In the meantime, Fidesz are responding to their shock by running further to the right. The victims will be Roma, LGBTQI people, women and migrants. But for the first time in a decade, the party has shown that it’s vulnerable.

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