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Mayor István Tarlós: “Achievements of Budapest are facts that cannot be disputed, but that’s what the opposition does”

Zsófia Nagy-Vargha 2019.09.20.

This time last year, he was sure he would not run again as mayor of Budapest, but he eventually changed his mind. He no longer feels excitement before an election, as this is the eighth campaign he is participating in. However, he feels it is very reassuring and gratifying that the capital just received great acknowledgement from Brussels in March and a couple of days ago from London. If elected again, he promises to pay more attention to the issues of homelessness and climate protection. Hungary Today’s sister site, Ungarn Heute had the opportunity to sit down for an exclusive interview with István Tarlós, Fidesz-KDNP candidate as Budapest mayor.

Exactly a year ago, you were sure you would not run in an election again. How did the Prime Minister convince you?

There was a providential conversation on September 26th, when almost all of my terms were accepted by the Prime Minister, and as a result, I eventually accepted the request. I also managed to raise 107 billion forints for the capital. And once I have gotten on board, then it is natural that I want to win. I have been playing sports for a long time, and it never occurred to me to give up on anything. I can still handle the tasks physically as well, but there are other important things in my life. I have a strong family: my wife, who I met at university, three kids, six grandchildren- so much has happened in my life in the last 30 years! But if I’m committed, I am going all the way.

You mentioned earlier that you had never thought that Viktor Orbán would say yes to each of your conditions. What were these terms?

I do not want to elaborate on this.

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Numerous improvements and developments have been made in Budapest over the past nine years – and some are still underway. Is there any accomplishment you are particularly proud of?

I do not put my grandchildren in some kind of order either, so I wouldn’t like to say whether a development was my favorite or not. All in all, the main point is not to stay in the position of Budapest mayor, but how much can I accomplish with the role. That’s a great difference. This is the eighth campaign I am going through. Out of the eight, the only one I didn’t win was the 2006 election, by only 1%. But I no longer feel the same excitement I had before the elections. On the other hand,

it feels very reassuring and gratifying that the capital just received a serious recognition from Brussels in March, when Budapest became Europe’s most attractive destination, and a couple of days ago from London, when the British Economist published its ranking, in which they declared us the best capital of Eastern Europe.

We have moved 20 places up in the world rankings since 2010. I do not believe that this feedback can be accused of as being positive bias, nor do they support the desperately repeated criticism of the opposition.

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You mentioned the ranking of the Economist, won by Vienna in recent years. It is not far away from Budapest and repeatedly ranked the best in the world. Are there any good practices in the operation of the city worth bringing to Budapest?

You might ask why we are not as good as the first, but that’s not right. If you look at the current rating system, there are a host of aspects like stability, environment, infrastructure, transport, and culture, which clearly reflects the work of the city administration. It may not be necessary to compare us with the first and demand why we are not at the forefront as well. Tendency and trend are more important than that.

Back to the investments- you often referred to the fact that, although you agree with the government on many issues, there are still conflicting issues. Were there any investments in the capital you would rather say no to, but the government insisted on?

There were several issues like that: banning the Red Bull Air Race, rebuilding the former Úttörő Stadium, or building a nine-story tennis stadium on Margaret Island. There are many more I can mention. You can think about what any of the opposition candidates could have achieved or kept from these. But I could also mention the protection of direct elections.

A year ago, well-known liberal thinkers thanked the preservation of the direct election of the Budapest mayor – which was, by the way, one of the conditions for running again for the position.

I could also mention keeping public service companies. I think it is more important what we have done and what we are planning in the near future, even plans we would launch this year. We have created the legal, technical, and financial basis for the operation of the city.

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Gergely Karácsony, the joint candidate of the opposition parties, announced recently that he would launch a “stadiumstop” petition and ask all Budapest residents to sign it. He would spend the money allocated for stadium building on health care. Do you agree with the many sports investments of recent years?

In the capital, two stadiums are being built, one of them is the Ferenc Puskás Stadium. I can’t see any problem with that particular investment. Show me a civilized capital without a national stadium. There is one everywhere. By the way, the stadium is in Zugló, in the XIV district, where Gergely Karácsony has been the mayor for five years. He has not raised his voice against the construction of a stadium, not once. The other stadium is Honvéd Stadium in Kispest. By the way, there is an opposition mayor as well, who has not protested against the construction of the stadium either.

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The situation was similar in the General Assembly for the Városliget (City Park) project, but then, when the development received foreign recognition, they suddenly stopped. And what kind of health benefits is he talking about when he withheld the vast majority of the district health service money despite protests by his own public body? I don’t really like this, these are just empty accusations. However, when asked about Zugló, he tells reporters – in the spirit of freedom of the press – that if he is asked about Zugló again, he would be really angry. You can set up camping tables, asking for signatures against a big nothing, but I don’t see  the point of it.

Thinking a bit about the tourists arriving in Budapest as well…

Yes, they voted for the recognition we received from Brussels. About 500 thousand people. It was not us who set up the vote, tourists made a verdict about Budapest in March.

One of the attractive points of the city is the so-called “party district,” which has also become a conflicting point between tourists and residents. You made a promise to resolve this conflict. Do you have any suggestions that would benefit everyone?

It is an exaggeration to restrict Budapest tourism to the party district. Moreover, this problem is fundamentally a district responsibility. I started to think about a solution, because the districts couldn’t find it themselves.

We are still in a place where the development of tourism is needed. I will be a spoilsport, but I must point out that there are, however, healthy limits to this development.

Beyond a certain point – and this is already the case with the party district – the residents, the people of Budapest, are starting to feel disturbed by tourism. We should not get as far as Barcelona, ​​where you can already see inscriptions on the walls in the city centre: “Tourists go home, because…!” Let me not finish the sentence. There was also the issue of ruin pubs, which, by the way, have been declining in recent months. There were examples when these pubs moved into perilous uninhabited buildings, and I wouldn’t even mention other events that happened after visiting these ruin pubs.

So these are the responsibility of the district, but what can the Budapest mayor do to help?

The mayors of a couple of concerned districts asked me to help. I will do whatever I can, but you have to be in a decision-making position to really make a difference.

Similarly, tourists and Budapest residents are simultaneously affected by the spread of Airbnbs. In a joint letter, 10 European cities asked the EU to help them tackle this type of accommodation because of its many negative effects. Are you planning to limit Airbnbs?

The capital is responsible for the flats it owns, and their number is extremely limited. There are a total of 1,240 rental properties owned by the capital. Most of them are inhabited by pensioners. I understand your question, but it concerns privately owned apartments. It does not occur to me that the very people who proclaim themselves liberals and in rhetoric protect private property to the utmost, can imagine how this can be done. The need for regulation is apparent. However, I do not have the authority to take specific actions in this regard.

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The issue of homelessness automatically arises in connection with municipal housing. You promised that if re-elected, you would try to speed up the resolution of the problem in the next cycle. Has the law amendment against homelessness not lived up to the expectations?

We have a new homelessness law amendment to finish. However, this problem is far more complex than it appears to the public. Currently, more than 40% of crisis care and more than 50% of temporary accommodation is provided by the municipal government. Homeless people are set against us, despite the fact that we have improved a significant part of the measurable parameters of their care in cooperation with the Minister of Interior over the past 9 years. It is not irrelevant to mention that all data on homeless people are uncertain and based only on estimates. We are not sure about their health and mental state either. Ultimately, it is not known what their situation is in terms of their ability to act. A distinction must be made between those sleeping rough (those who spend the night on the streets) from those who do not have a stable home, and in particular, from those who have a place to live, but choose to live a homeless lifestyle.

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I consider the homeless issue primarily a social issue. At the same time, we must not forget that people expect us, and me to operate the frequented points of the city in accordance with its functions.

I have to represent not only the homeless people but also the 1,780,000 people who live here in the capital.

As you have mentioned tourism before: it is not a tourist attraction, which has been and is going on in some underpasses.

How is this new regulation different, what issues can it solve?

Our regulation cannot override legislation. The current legislation is slightly more favorable than the previous one, but it is still not strong enough to address the substance of the issue. In my opinion, the capital has to take care of those first and foremost who became homeless in Budapest. Because it is inconceivable and unpredictable when somebody from the other side of the country comes to Budapest, where different so-called civil organizations will then persuade these unfortunate people against us, for example, to ask for a rental apartment. This is impracticable: many of them are unable or unwilling to work, and housing has costs. The only solution can be to further improve the classic conditions of homeless care, which requires money. The biggest problem is the privatization of old workers’ hostels and now those people demand construction of rental houses, who does nothing about them. The mayor of Zugló for example, who promised in 2016 of 100 rentals per year – none were actually built, but seventy of the existing ones were sold. We have stabilized the city and the developments are on a reliable path, this is why we would like to continue to pay more attention and spend more money on homelessness, climate protection, and green infrastructure development.

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The Metropolitan Government has developed a 170-page climate strategy in recent years. According to a study, in 30 years, Budapest will be as hot as Skopje because of climate change. Is it a bit utopian to say that with this strategy, Budapest will not be that hot in 30 years?

The 30-year prophecy is a hypothesis.

Climate protection is important because climate change is an existing problem, but some tend to scare people with it out of fear or political frenzy. This can be as dangerous as climate change itself.

What happens in 30 years will largely depend on what the countries of the world can comply with major international climate conventions. And Hungary has a barely measurable role in this. Our strategy is both in line with international conventions and existing Hungarian standards. We address all the major threats of climate change: heatwaves, flood risks, air quality, the spread of allergens, the revival of old diseases, and forest damage. The strategy also contains 47 exact measures, which will determine the capital’s activities in the coming years in its own capacity.

This includes making the capital greener. In recent weeks, there has been a power struggle over who planted and who cut out more trees. Statistics show that there are more trees in the capital; however, according to the opposition, Budapest has not become greener. They say that in many cases, the planting of the trees was not professional enough.

We have also published special workbooks that specifically address the issues of the current works of public utilities and the problems around tree planting. In a 170-page document, we deal with the issues of a city along the Danube, address the question of turning brownfield lands into green areas, planting trees and public parks, and we have allocated 5.5 billion forints to the development of the latter in recent years. In addition, we write about the options for storing excess water and protecting existing water surfaces. We made a goal-oriented, exact concept. In regard to the power struggle, it is not worth arguing with numbers and facts, and the opposition does exactly that. The official, stamped statement of Főkert shows that we have planted 10,000 trees since 2016. In fact, the Municipality planted more trees in Zugló than Zugló itself – and in the Pillangó Park, almost three times as many trees were cut out, but the opposition pretends that that didn’t happen. With such a speculative, false and swindler attitude, I cannot and do not want to do anything. The numbers speak for themselves. They also missed the climate strategy, which was prepared 1,5 years ago. But well, those who never participate in general assembly meetings do not even know that there is a prepared document and even make the mistake of calling us into account over it.

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In the next five years, if re-elected, are there any plans for a congestion charge and an increase in the P+R parking opportunities?

We want to increase the rate of the cycle traffic to 10%. We have built 35 kilometers of cycle paths and there is a development underway for a direct connection to international cycling networks. We have done much more than anyone else to improve cycle traffic. I do not consider the fact that I often mention that cycling culture has to follow technical developments, an anti-bicycle behavior. Recently, we signed a written agreement with the Cycling Association which has never occurred before. There are many new P+R parking opportunities in our plans and their places have already been determined. As for vehicle traffic, we also have an agreement with the Hungarian Automobile Club. And the congestion charge is not the devil’s work either. We have already worked out the terms and even the fees. If we are thinking about a car-free downtown, it has to be introduced sooner or later. But, of course, not with a conductor-like gesture to completely disable the car community. Proportionality is a decisive power here.

The development of public transport in the capital also contributes to this problem. Do you think that the money you receive from the government for public transport is enough? According to the G7 economic portal, the amount has significantly dropped over the last period.

Since 2011, the BKK has no operating loan and its operating profit has been positive for years. Moreover, in 2010, our fleet was probably the most neglected in Europe, and we have already replaced a large part of it. Today, 92% of the buses in Budapest are wheelchair accessible and BKK also has a so-called passenger satisfaction index, which is constantly monitored. It was only 40% in 2013, now it is 89%, which says a lot. The municipality provides more resources from its own power and the government a little less – I want to change that, and I believe, I can. We have also improved the conditions of control in recent years to the extent that BKK’s own revenues have increased significantly, so there is no unmanageable shortage of funds and there has only been – an approximately 7% – increase in ticket prices once in the nine years.

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Budapest does not vote about Viktor Orbán in October – you emphasized this several times in recent weeks. At the same time, you also said that the opposition is cutting off all forms of cooperation opportunity with the government thanks to their campaign. If you do not win, will the government punish the capital?

Regardless of the polls – which for the time being are leaning towards me – I could not guess. I have never guessed… the wise people of Budapest will make their decision on October 13th. I say this completely seriously and not ironically. There are different scenarios we can imagine if Budapest will have an opposition mayor. What the opposition is doing now, adding the popularity data of even the smallest opposition parties together is nonsense and ridiculous, because it runs counter to all terms of probability. Moreover, the role of individuals is much greater than in the case of parliamentary elections. So this is one thing. The other thing is, that I also hear these slogans that they will surely punish the city. I would not put it like that. If you look around the world, there are examples where

those who are able to cooperate with the government despite the disputes and do not eliminate and destroy the means of cooperation, there is a great chance that the government will provide significant assistance to the city. While with those who burn all bridges, and behave in a hostile manner, sometimes even being defamatory and commonly attack the government, they are cooperating less.

The current candidates, especially those said to be the relatively strongest among them, have already burned all bridges of cooperation.

You mentioned at the beginning of the conversation that you do sports and feels physically fit. What sports do you do? If you win, you will be Budapest mayor for another 5 years. Will you have the energy for it?

I have been doing many different sports in the last 15 years, I don’t want to list them all. For a long time, football, handball and gymnastics were among them. By the way, I think that how much energy someone has, how much physical and mental strength they have, and can stand the stress psychologically, is mainly genetics. I cannot say that I am a fatalist because I am a believer and I consider everything that happens to me as a test. For now, I’m fine. That is an entirely different question that I have been quite disgusted with these campaigns for 20 years, but this is not from physical or psychological reasons but rather for my stomach. I do well psychologically, although the truth is that the campaigns in Hungary, and the hate that is going on here, are all very disturbing to me.

Translation by Fanni Kaszás
Photos by Zita Merényi/Hungary Today

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