Liberalism at Local Level: Towards More Open Political System in CEE

People-Power-Mosaic
Herb Neufeld // CC BY 2.0

Local elections will be held in Hungary on October 13, 2019. In this regard September 25, 2019, Republikon organized the conference “Who should liberals vote for in the local elections 2019?”, supported by Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.

The opposition candidates were the guests of the first half of the event, in which mayoral candidates introduced the alternatives they offer to voters in the local elections, and told how they want to build a more liberal city after the elections and what that means for the illiberal government.

After the political debate, in the second panel we organized a roundtable discussion, which included analysts and researchers from V4 countries, with similar political and economic backgrounds.

They discussed the tendencies of liberal parties, how liberals vote in their countries, which in many ways are less and less liberal.

The speakers were Šárka Prát (Institute for Politics and Society, Czech Republic), Milosz Hodun (Nowoczesna, Poland), Viera Zuborova (Bratislava Policy Institute, Slovakia), and Andrea Virág (Republikon Institute, Hungary). The international speakers discussed the state of liberalism in the V4 countries and the importance of liberalism on the local level.

Importance of Local Level and Best Practices

Viera Zuborova thought that liberalism is really mattered in local level, since it’s a way of thinking which constantly questioning itself and its environment. One of the focuses of the panel discussion was on sharing local good practices.

In this context, Zuborova mentioned the example of Slovak villages, where the candidates were able to represent a vision authentically to everyone, so the residents realized that populism erodes community.

According to Šárka Prát, liberals have to struggle with their values at the local level, so that they can represent liberalism locally by making reasonable compromises, representing majority democracy, and ensuring equality between members of society. She believes that liberals can fight the most effectively against the fake news on the local level.

Milosz Hodun explained that liberalism is not limited to any group, it belongs to everyone, so local representatives must offer hope and progressive responses in a limited national political environment.

Participation

An emphatic element of the panel discussion was the importance of participation. There are several examples of participatory projects such as a participatory budget, open city hall, and community cleaning.

As Milosz Hodun experienced in the polish small towns, the lack of connecting points is the biggest problem as there is no local leader to represent liberalism. He believes that community spaces are needed to build community, to understand what locals think is important and how liberals can represent it.

According to Andrea Virág, respect for freedom, people, and values is easier to represent locally through people-to-people relationships, but it also affects the ability of a local government to make its own decisions about its environment. She mentioned the participatory budget as a good example and the importance of local participation in decision-making in general.

Party Politics and Independent Candidates

An important outcome of the panel discussion was there is still no clear position on the nomination of independent candidates even within the V4 countries.

Viera Zuborova said that according to her, liberal democracy is based on party politics, so the independent representatives indicate the illness of the system. She sees the danger that if the independent candidate loses the election, the local society will lose its model and the community may become apolitical.

Andrea Virág also emphasized the distance between civilians and parties in Hungary in relation to independent candidates, resulting in today’s political system.

In contrast, Milosz Hodun reports that in Poland, the majority of independent candidates running for election are party members, and the independent start is due to cooperation. He considers it as a well-functioning system.

Conclusion

Participants in the conference were asked what advice they would give to the opposition lord mayoral candidate, Gergely Karácsony to represent liberal values at the local level.

Viera Zuborova suggested Gergely Karácsony to give a vision to the local community and react to local politics by responding to government failures through active local governance.

Šárka Prát recommended Gergely Karácsony to build compromises and form unity focused on common issues against populists.

Milosz Hodun advised Gergely Karácsony to identify his target audience and build a story to tell them, and he also considered it is important to keep the opposition united and setting a good national example by this.

Andrea Virág advised Gergely Karácsony to demonstrate how to build another Budapest with competence. Moreover, local opposition connections are essentials for national success.

It also demonstrates that today, liberal politics can be represented in an illiberal system by participation against apathy, local relations for participation, competence against populism, and the development of the local community.

All of these resonate with the broad lines of the theoretical framework of political opportunity structures (POS), known in the political literature.

Although the theoretical framework contains several approaches, there is consensus that establishing a division of power by mitigate the closure of the formal political system at national level leads to an open political system. Just as there is a consensus that this will not work without building local ties and mobilizing elites through informal procedures.

Sandor Kollar
Republikon Institute