No other city will receive such attention in the nationwide municipal elections this Sunday as the capital. The man to beat as mayor is the incumbent and Fidesz candidate István Tarlós.
”This is the mistake of the former city leadership, who did not do anything for the last 20 years.” This mantra is Tarlós’ favourite with the press, though at the same time he finds journalists basically annoying because he feels they – just like the left opposition – do not understand him and therefore report about him in a wrong way.
Well then, who is this misunderstood István Tarlós actually? Let’s take a look at his professional career so far. Tarlós was born in 1948 in Budapest, as a son of a lawyer and an accountant, who were both working at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, in a bourgeois family. He grew up and studied in District III, and after his military service he studied engineering in Budapest and Győr. Tarlós worked in the construction industry for 15 years and started his own engineering office together with his wife, Cecília Nagy, shortly before the change of regime.
In 1989 he became a member of the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), according to him because of the “prominent government-critical tone”. After he was elected to represent the citizens in his home district many times, he entered the first free elections in 1990 in the colours of SZDSZ and Fidesz and won the position of district mayor.
In 1994 he left SZDSZ due to conflict of opinions (and not least because of the coalition built with the Hungarian Socialist Party). In the same year he entered the district mayor elections as an independent candidate supported by Fidesz, and won, just like at the following two elections. In 2006 Fidesz nominated him to stand as mayor of Budapest but he lost to long-time incumbent and free democratic Gábor Demszky.
In April 2010 he entered the Hungarian Parliament – still as an independent politician – as the fraction leader of Fidesz in the capital, but he left these offices after his election as mayor in October that year. He placed urban politics in front of national politics, because the first was more of a “service” while the other was “pure politics”.
The man of conflicts and contradictions
According to his right-wing colleagues Tarlós is a conservative realist politician (“Even two-thirds majorities do not last for ever, even Rome did not last for ever”). His critics say his methods are autocratic.
In a recent interview with economic magazine Figyelő he said that upon re-election he would need to create difficulties for the national government in order to be able to continue his job. This was a reference to his conflict with Chancellor János Lázár over the distribution of EU grants for development of the city. The conflict with Lázár was not a “show” but it was not “that serious as some people think” either.
Weekly magazine Hetek revealed that Tarlós sees himself as humorous and frank, and this is why he makes remarkable statements, such as during the back-and-forth with Lázár recently. Tarlós is not always free of contradictions, despite his frankness: he has a good, although not conflict-free relationship with Fidesz, on the other hand he likes to argue with Lázár or Dávid Vitézy, the president of Budapest Transport Centre BKK supported by Fidesz, the interview revealed. As a “man of the city” and experienced politician he always fought for the benefit of Budapest and he did not want to get involved with national politics, but in topics like funding he could hardly avoid it.
He does not worry about the election, telling Lánchíd Rádió he has never seen such a hectic and mistake-ridden campaign from the left side: “They are desperately trying to criticise everything that the present city leadership ever did. Such hysterical accusations do not even deserve any reaction.”
Tarlós pointed out to state news agency MTI the things he has accomplished (Metro 4, replacing public transport vehicles, renovation of sewers, etc.) and the things he is still planning (utilisation of the gas plant in Óbuda or the train station in Józsefváros, disposing of BKK and stopping its integration in the city administration, traffic tax introduction from 2016, etc.).
He admitted to Népszava that he does not have the money to complete all his plans. The renewal of Metro 3 would take about HUF 200 billion; the appropriate funding request would be submitted to the Chancellor’s Office. A mayor who supported the government could achieve more than one who is government-critical, he said.
To the liberal opposition’s criticism about the unauthorised use of the capital’s logo on his electoral poster, Tarlós told TV channel atv: “I have been rightfully using the logo for the last four years as lord mayor, so even now I did not think that it will disturb anyone if I do so. I am surprised that we have to talk about the exterior of the electoral campaign instead of its contents.” He would not ask citizens to vote for him; instead he would ask them to consider what has been achieved in Budapest in the last four years, and which candidate knows something about urban politics. Basically he does not care about his challengers, believing they have neither the knowledge nor experience.
Tarlós was criticised in 2012 for appointing the radical-right-oriented György Dörner as director of Budapest New Theatre (Újszínház) and in 2013 for naming a street after anti-Semitic writer Cécile Tormay. He was also scorned due to the homeless law (“I do not represent the couple thousand homeless people, I represent 1.7 million citizens of Budapest”), the proposed expropriation of the former ballet institute building and his rough behaviour towards the press (for example the word fight with atv moderator Olga Kálmán).
According to opinion research institute Medián, the familiarity of Tarlós has grown from 68% (2008) to 80% (2010) and has been around 90% ever since. His popularity was around 40% between 2008 and 2010 and increased to almost 50% by November 2010. After a collapse (March 2013: 26%) it levelled off again around 38%.
Opinion research institute Ipsos puts Tarlós as clear favourite to win: 35% of respondents will vote for him, MSZP and Jobbik only earned 12%, with LMP, DK and Together Dialogue on 3% each.