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Conference on sustainable democracy in Budapest

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Hungary – Parallel to the opposition’s primary for the spring 2022 parliamentary elections, a “Forum for Building Sustainable Democracies” organised by the city of Budapest and Central European University (CEU) took place in Hungary’s capital on 16-17 September. This conference brought together Hungarian and foreign experts on political, social, economic, and environmental issues, and it will henceforth be held annually in Budapest.

Rebuilding and consolidating democracy in the age of populism

In their own words, its organizers aim

to put Budapest squarely back on the region’s progressive intellectual map.

By bringing thinkers to Budapest who are formulating innovative, unusual, and bold ideas and suggestions, the Forum seeks solutions rather than only dwelling on the challenges. In fact, the conference’s programme looked very much as if its goal was to draw up an anti-Fidesz political manifesto, with two of the four major topics covered being titled:

Rebuilding and Consolidating Democracy in the Age of Populism” and “Addressing Inequalities During and After the Coronavirus Epidemic” 

A lot of Anglo-Saxon liberals and Věra Jourová

This impression was reinforced by the choice of speakers, which of course included the mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karácsony, but also others such as Anne Applebaum, an American journalist with dual American and Polish citizenship. A former supporter of Hillary Clinton against “populism”, Applebaum is married to Polish PM Donald Tusk’s former foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski, who is particularly vocal in his hostility toward PiS. There was also the American sociologist and political scientist Larry Diamond, former advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and former co-director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies; the Vice President of the European Commission, Věra Jourová; British historian Timothy Garton Ash; American political scientist Charles Gati; and Ukrainian-born British political scientist Peter Pomerantsev, who coined the term “post-modern dictatorship” to describe contemporary Russia.

Campaign atmosphere

Gergely Karácsony made the nature of the event clear in his opening speech:

We feel that democracy is facing some sort of threat. And the fact that we are here suggests that we think that there is something we can do about these threats.

The atmosphere of electoral campaigning was further reinforced by the words of Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, who was also present and whose anti-Orbán stance is well known:

Budapest’s mayor is seen as a hope throughout the whole EU, especially in Germany and in France”, he said. “He is seen as the hope that Hungary, which is an extremely important country, can get back on a track where the rule of law and minorities are respected.