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Case study 2: C8 – civil society actors in politics: role models faced with a role dilemma


The changing local government landscape in Hungary: is there a place for civil society?

Case study 2

C8 – civil society actors in politics: role models faced with a role dilemma


Five members of C8, including a founding member, three C8 delegates to the municipal committees and one activist who works for the municipality.

Inspired by the municipalist movement of Ada Colau, a civic activist from Barcelona who launched a political movement, the organization C8 – Civilek Józsefvárosért (Citizens for Józsefváros) conducted a successful election campaign in the 8th district of Budapest, withthe result that András Pikó (C8), a former journalist, won the local elections. The success of this participatory grassroots campaign is illustrative of a wider phenomenon in Hungary, where civic activists have gotten involved in institutionalized politics, and (in some places by collaborating with oppositional political forces) managed to win mayoral races in the October 2019 municipal elections.


In the 1990s, the 8th district appeared in the public discourse as a stigmatized “ghetto,” and in the case of the large proportion of Roma and immigrant residents, this stigma was ethnicized. Since the early 2000s, and especially after metro line 4 was opened in 2014, the district has become more and more attractive to young people for its cheaper rents, bringing about large-scale developments and gentrification, rising rents and demographic change. Between 2009 and 2019, right-wing Fidesz mayors governed the district with a “law and order” approach. They continued the “rehabilitation programs” of the previous liberal mayors (which included both participatory elements toward community renewal and heavy-handed police operations), controlled poverty through harsh, punitive measures and tried to dominate local civil society by creating new organizations and dominating the local media. This, however, gave rise to a vivid alternative cultural-political resistance centered around community centers and social initiatives. The team that rallied around C8 during the election campaign included prominent figures from the grassroots community, specifically from the housing movement. The local civil society landscape included several other initiatives, organized mainly in specific neighborhoods. Some of them are partly coopted by the local government, others are active in specific areas (cultural heritage, built environment, social and minority issues). For a long time, local politics has been characterized by a low level of public participation. For socio-political reasons, voter turnout is lower than in any other areas of Budapest, even with the slight increase from 35% to 40% in the 2019 elections. 

The path to victory is paved with failures

Before the 2019 local elections, it became clear that no opposition party was keen to field its own candidate against the incumbent Fidesz mayor in the 8th district, which opened the door for candidates from civil society. This political vacuum is the outcome of previous electoral failures and the general weakness of opposition party organizations in Hungary. However, this window of opportunity was also the outcome of C8’s effort to appear as an equal partner, instead of allowing the decision on this “lost cause district” to be made in the closed-door meetings of party officials. C8 followed a political strategy that drew on the lessons learnt from the past years of civic struggle for political representation. From this political context, C8 emerged as a “non-specialist” civil society organization (CSO), which can be described as an umbrella organization that absorbs local activists and citizens from very different backgrounds who share a dissatisfaction with local politics. Although members of C8 have also carried out advocacy campaigns around particular local issues, it should more accurately be described as a movement that is inseparable from its specific political context.

C8’s predecessor was the KÖZÖD Civic Association, an informal group recruited from the local elite (activists, intellectuals, former politicians) with around 10 members. From 2014, KÖZÖD was active mostly on social issues, the management of the municipal housing stock, representing the interests of local citizens, and watchdog activities against the lawlessness of local government. The local knowledge and expertise of its members helped KÖZÖD to successfully interfere in municipal decisions. In 2017, there was a by-election for one of the seats on the city council, where KÖZÖD and other activists ran an independent campaign for Márta Bolba, a socially minded Lutheran pastor from the district and a founding member of KÖZÖD. Most of the opposition parties did not support her, but stood behind another candidate, a local gangster rapper, which resulted in the right-wing Fidesz candidate winning the election. While the move of entering local politics had already sparked debates among the members of KÖZÖD, this grassroots campaign allowed them to gain experience in managing a professional campaign and changed their focus from being more of an expert organization to more direct engagement and embeddedness.

In 2018, another by-election became necessary when the previous mayor, Fidesz strongman Máté Kocsis, was elected to parliament. This time, civic groups and political parties coordinated their efforts and endorsed Péter Győri, an independent candidate and founder of Menhely Alapítvány (Shelter Foundation), an organization that has supported homeless people in Budapest since 1990. Several subsequent C8 members deliberately abstained from participating in this campaign, which ended with a disappointing result. However, this district-level campaign and its shortcomings again enhanced the activists’ knowledge of professional campaigning. András Pikó worked as a PR adviser on this campaign, but still not as a high-profile actor. Through discussions about future strategy, this campaign laid the foundations for C8, although the association was only formally registered in October 2019. Those involved in this process realized that the opposition parties, while recognizing their contribution (in manpower), gave them no leadership role in the campaign and no say in choosing the candidate or in writing the program. The campaign staff was also led by the parties, which caused no direct conflict with the political actors but influenced C8’s future strategy. C8 decided to maintain an independent profile by minimizing its dependence on and subservience to bargains made among the political parties. To achieve this, it had to increase its embeddedness, which helped it to enhance its bargaining power and to play the role of initiator before the 2019 local elections. Faced with opposition parties that had been weakened by their electoral defeats and thus lacked the confidence that they could win, C8 managed to put forward its own mayoral candidate, policy program and campaign team. The activists even managed to get the support of the opposition parties for their candidate and electoral program, despite the fact that the opposition parties had divided the districts of the capital among them, meaning that one of the parties had to give way to Mr. Pikó instead of fielding its own candidate. The campaign mode energized the organization, drawing in external experts as well as common citizens, who now form the backbone of C8. Despite its grassroots character, the election campaign was characterized by professionalism: the work was done according to plan, using experts and data. The collaborative drafting of the election program was also a way to increase embeddedness and legitimize C8 as a political actor. A local survey with 600 residents, focus groups and public participation served as a real driver for identifying and prioritizing the main issues of the campaign. This produced interesting results: although C8 concentrated on “non party-political” issues such as street cleaning, respondents also mentioned the biased local media or the housing crisis as important problems. The electoral program is still an important point of reference for the C8 members: those serving as committee members are referring to it as an explicit mandate that provides direction for their operation.

The campaign team, which was led by an activist closely associated with C8, also handled the campaign finances. It had little to spend on billboards or advertisements, although the opposition parties also contributed to the campaign. The activists conducted an intensive door-to-door campaign (reaching out to an estimated number of 15,000 inhabitants), in which they canvassed not only for Pikó, but also for the opposition candidates running for the city council. Between 150 and 200 activists were working on the campaign, many of whom represented “the cream” of local civil society, using innovative methods (e.g. street walking tours around the district), data analytics and creative community building. C8 also organized constant training for volunteers and activists, and unlike in a party campaign, made huge efforts to engage the volunteers, making them responsible for minor tasks and building up a sophisticated system for giving feedback. As such, C8 turned into a very professional campaign team that managed the strategic planning until election day. After October 2019, the electoral victory of Mr. Pikó and the opposition coalition that had assembled behind him created a dramatically new situation for C8.

Inside and outside the municipality

Interviewees working in municipal committees point out that party politicians often have a different mindset from civil society activists. As C8 is part of the ruling coalition, it has to be involved in the city-level coordination to keep things working, but it cannot vote. Collaboration on issues laid down in the policy program is difficult, since party politicians control the committees responsible for preparing the decisions. They are less motivated to work on strategic goals and long-term issues or to swiftly find solutions to problems raised by residents. They prefer visible, short-term results and avoid the political risks involved in tackling the most controversial issues of the municipal status quo. Acting as external members of these committees does not give C8 sufficient political weight, hence its position depends on the attitude and ability of the committee chairs, but also on the clout and respect accumulated by its members through their hard work and expert knowledge. To resolve this situation, C8 also participates in internal working groups, where strategy documents can be prepared more smoothly.

C8 and the district mayor continue to organize forums to collect and discuss the residents’ concerns in every part of the district. While Pikó has distanced himself from C8, he is still a member. Moreover, several C8 members of the campaign team are now employees of the municipality, but as public servants, they have “removed their C8 badges,” as one of the activists noted. If it voices any criticism, C8 risks weakening the position of the mayor and causing a political scandal that would be sensationalized by the right-wing media, which would delegitimize both the mayor and C8.

As one of the interviewees phrased it, C8 now faces the strategic dilemma of becoming either a watchdog or a puppy dog of the municipality. As a value-oriented civic group that wants to accomplish its program, C8 needs to energize the project development and policy preparation processes inside the City Hall, but it cannot give up its hard-won institutional position by simply walking out. The organization now has to come up with a strategy for how to resolve the crisis caused by this internal-external position. A long-term solution might be to aim for more influential positions within the municipality in order to recalibrate it into a more “civic” mode of operation. However, given the bipolar political situation, this endeavor would face resistance from the opposition parties. Despite the merits of the campaign run by C8, political representatives often call into question the legitimacy of the group’s presence in the decision-making process. Another, more targeted strategy for C8 would be to return to advocacy about winnable – and therefore galvanizing – local issues, which is something the organization is already doing with regard to a disputed investment project. In this context, it collaborates with another CSOs to oppose the real estate development project by means of community-building practices in the neighborhood. Such initiatives, however, necessarily interfere with the operation of the local government. To promote greater democracy and participation, C8 has become involved in several initiatives fronted by the municipality, including a local consultation about movie shoots, organizing forums and by conducting a survey. Many C8 members have been involved in voluntary assistance also during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the local government often keeps silent about their role, since this would “politicize” these activities. Doing voluntary work for the local government channels energy away from the daily activities of the organization. Many vocal residents see C8 as a privileged CSO or a “local party” that is gaining a lot from governing the municipality, which is not the case. C8 does not accept subsidies from the municipality and does not even rent any premises from it, but this is hard to explain to the public.

That being said, the participatory approach of C8 has been incorporated into the operation of the municipal government. A new department has been created, called the Office of Public Participation, in order to strengthen the involvement of the public in decision-making processes. The Office for Public Participation, backed by the mayor and legitimized by the participatory pledge contained in his electoral program, is formally a department of the municipality, with dedicated projects (participatory budgeting, forums, consultations, COVID-19 volunteering, etc.) But it follows a more comprehensive approach with a view to making the whole municipality more transparent, accessible and participatory. Through its involvement in preparing the decisions of the mayor’s administration, the office cooperates with other departments, assisting them in two-way communication and consultation (e.g. participatory decision making about the local awards and decorations, summaries about council meetings in language that is easy to understand). It currently has a staff of five, among them a former C8 member and the former campaign manager. The office is responsible for programs in which many C8 members are involved as volunteers. However, the office is not engaged in any close and formal cooperation with C8; since it represents the municipality, not C8. This means, that C8 is not mentioned, even if the C8 members sometimes feel that they are doing the lion’s share of the work. This is a strongly held view among the members of C8 – despite the fact that the Office for Public Participation also disposes of the assets and human resources of the municipality – which is largely invisible to CSOs outside the day-to-day work of the municipality.

Two possible solutions to this strategic dilemma have been proposed within C8: one is to behave like one of the local CSOs, carrying out collaborative projects together with them and with the municipality under the logos of all the participating organizations. In this scenario, the creation of a formal forum (CSO roundtable) would facilitate the coordination between the civil society actors. The other solution is to leave these tasks to the municipality, which should involve other volunteers and participants in its projects, while C8 would concentrate on its own projects and engage with the municipal authorities more at arm’s length. In this second scenario, C8 would assume a privileged position in a political sense, setting it somewhat apart from other local CSOs. All our interviewees agreed that performing voluntary work for the municipality as if the campaign was still ongoing is not a sustainable option for C8, and that strategic decisions have to be made. C8 cannot afford to undercommunicate its work, since it is the lifeblood of its ability to compete politically. Some of its members want to deploy their work as an asset themselves, instead of allowing political actors to appropriate it. With no internal hierarchy or party discipline within C8, these tensions may lead to conflicts in the future.

C8’s role dilemma is representative of a more systemic contradiction. In the overloaded Hungarian local government sphere, which has to counterbalance the government’s antidemocratic centralization efforts, grassroots movements such as C8 that become involved in politics are faced with an environment that is dominated by political parties. They need to work with these parties, but should not necessarily merge into them. For a CSO, to gain influence over the institutions and processes of local government is a long learning process, in which an electoral victory is probably a unique situation. CSOs are able to develop their roles and strategies in a more organic manner while in opposition, by concentrating on specific issues and constituencies. If they aim to act as political representatives at the local level, they cannot circumvent the electoral game altogether, which requires not only the strength of a social movement, but a mature strategy and political agenda. Once they enter politics, they are responsible not only to their autonomous membership, but also to voters, which requires them to mediate between various interests and needs, as well as to bear responsibility for the static system they are trying to improve.

Civic initiatives are able to legitimately criticize the shortcomings of partisan local politics (instructions and obligation coming from above instead of being embedded locally), and a pattern has emerged by which this partisan logic is slowly being dissolved and domesticated by localist impulses. A Hungarian study of CSOs actively involved in the 2019 local elections, which was conducted simultaneously with ours, highlighted similar experiences. The future of C8’s municipalist project depends on how much institutional change it can achieve within the local government, and how much leverage it can create not only for itself, but also for other local stakeholders. Stronger collaboration between such movements is very important to enable them to learn from each other, especially regarding their experience of pre- and post-election negotiations, which may improve their starting position as well as the intra-municipal setting for achieving their goals.