Ex-underground publisher and liberal politician, 1952–
“I was public enemy No. 1. And that’s why I became mayor,” Gabor Demszky said in a 2006 interview. “The connection is clear.”
Indeed, Demszky parlayed his unpopularity with Hungary’s Communist regime into one of the longest-lasting sinecures in European politics. He is now in his fifth term as chief executive of the country’s capital city – although whether he could win re-election in an increasingly fractious Hungary next year is unclear.
In his youth Demszky flirted with Maoism and critiqued the government from the extreme left, but he turned against communism and in his 20s balanced law and sociology studies with dissident activity, attracting regular police attention and getting suspended from the University of Budapest. (For a time he worked as a taxi driver.) Nevertheless, through the 1980s he tirelessly published banned books and magazines, did work fighting poverty in a country where the condition official did not exist, and forged ties with Polish anti-communists. He also helped found the Alliance of Free Democrats, a liberal party in which he is still a key figure.
His prominence in the now-legal opposition that emerged in 1989 won Demszky a seat in parliament in the free elections of March 1990, then the top job in Budapest city government that October. Remarkably for a politician who learned the ropes in those anything-goes early days, he still holds the job, winning re-election in 1994, 1998, 2002, and 2006.
But as Hungarian politics grew increasingly polarized into socialist and conservative-nationalist camps, the Free Democrats’ liberal stance has become less popular. The party barely squeaked into parliament in the 2002 and 2006 national elections, and Demszky himself was only narrowly re-elected mayor in the 2006 Budapest balloting, which closely followed revelations that his coalition partner, Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, had deliberately misled the public about the country’s financial state.
Amid the scandal, Demszky was criticized for municipal actions seemingly aimed at limiting the size of anti-government protests. Two years later the Free Democrats broke with the increasingly unpopular Socialists, after 14 years as somewhat unlikely partners. Demszky’s party suffered another setback in this summer’s European Parliament elections, losing the two seats it won in 2004 and doing poorly even in its stronghold of Budapest. These days the darling of post-communist Hungarian politics is a regular target of eggs, tomatoes, and invective hurled by nationalist demonstrators at the annual 15 March celebrations of the 1848 revolution.