Business, politics and a vote to close Budapest's bars

Government-tied business owners need not worry about closing their bars at midnight after low turnout invalidates vote.

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    Hungarians walk by a flyer to vote yes to close party district bars by midnight [Al Jazeera]
    Hungarians walk by a flyer to vote yes to close party district bars by midnight [Al Jazeera]

    Budapest, Hungary - Budapest's "party district", a historic downtown area full of bars, clubs and restaurants, held a referendum to close businesses between midnight and 6am after years of resident complaints about noise and waste.

    But late Monday evening, the municipal government said the vote was invalid because of low voter turnout.

    "All of the rubbish, the vomit, it's become unliveable here," Judit Sakali, an elderly resident of the seventh district where the bars are found, told Al Jazeera on a recent February morning.

    Sakali said she wanted bars and restaurants to close at midnight so she could sleep. Noisy tourists have prevented her from doing so.

    Residents in the district, called "Elizabeth Town" by locals, came together to form the Livable Elizabeth Town group to organise themselves and document property destruction in response to rowdy partygoers.

    They often post notes addressed to tourists on the streets: "We understand. You want to have a good time, but you need to understand that … our streets are not your toilet."

    Months of activism took place to get the referendum.

    Atilla Vajnai, a left-wing politician and resident of the seventh district, told Al Jazeera the efforts began as a way to placate unhappy locals.

    "Then, when they saw how popular [the issue] is, they began to worry," Vajnai said.

    The referendum faced challenges at the local and national level. An unnamed party tried to stop the vote in Hungary's High Court the week before it took place. The challenge was dismissed.

    Tourists walk out of Szimpla, one of Budapest's most famous ruin pubs in the party district 

    In 2017, a commissioner said the district's UNESCO World Heritage Site designation blocked the local council from making the decision. 

    Though a local issue, the party district's fate was the intersection of politics and business in advance of April elections.

    Vajnai pointed to connections between bar owners and the ruling Fidesz party and the amount of money they make from these locales.   

    Tourism boom

    Tourism has spiked in recent years, partly due to an increase in budget flights to Hungary and Budapest's growing reputation as one of Europe's most beautiful cities.

    In 2016, the last year for which the Hungarian government has data, more than eight million tourists visited the country of 10 million people, the highest number on record.

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    The bars of the seventh district, including the famous "ruin pubs" - housing complexes that had fallen into disrepair but were bought by developers in the 1990s and converted into clubs - are a big draw for Western Europeans.

    Though there are no publicly available figures for private revenue, the district brought in more than $25m in tax in 2016, figures from the Ministry for National Economy show.

    Many of the establishments in Budapest's popular district belong to Prime Minister Victor Orban's political allies, Antonia Radi, a Hungarian journalist who investigated bar ownership in the area, told Al Jazeera.

    These people view the recreational district "as a place which can produce great benefit", Radi said.

    Closely connected

    Roy Zsiday, a Hungarian restaurant impresario, gave Orban's eldest daughter an internship at his business in the seventh district.

    She now teaches a class in Hungary's Corvinus University and often invites Zsidai to speak as a guest lecturer, Radi said.

    "They do not cover their close relationship at all," Radi explained.

    The connections don't end there.

    The Fidesz government has long been criticised for limiting critical media in favour of pro-government outlets.

    One such outlet is Origo, a former opposition media company that is now widely viewed as pro-government after the editor-in-chief was reportedly forced to resign after publishing a report on the spending of one of Orban's aides.

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    Istvan Szaras, the previous CEO of Origo, owns a cocktail bar in the district. Origo's new CEO is Adam Matolcy, son of the Hungarian central bank chief Gyorgy Matolcsy.

    Balint Fulop Somlai owns another location in the district. He is the chief of the TV division of New Wave Media, the company that publishes Origo.

    Somlai took out a mortgage on the property from the NHB Bank, which is also connected to Matolcsy, Radi's research shows.

    When asked about these connections, a government spokesperson said it has "no duty with district issues".

    Looking to April

    The seventh district's mayor is Zsolt Vattamany, a Fidesz member. Istvan Bajkai, the Orban family's lawyer, is vice mayor and a parliamentary candidate in Hungary's April elections.

    However, Fidesz does not have a majority on the district council. Janos Stummer, a member of the populist Jobbik party many view as far-right, typically serves as the swing vote to decide issues.

    Stummer is the politician who originally proposed the referendum in 2017, but he later voted against it, siding with Vattamany.

    On the national level, Jobbik has positioned itself as a populist alternative to Fidesz, focusing on raising wages for Hungarian and Eastern European workers, among other issues.

    Many say Fidesz has gone further to the right on issues of refugees and immigration, as well as adopting a campaign against Hungarian American liberal philanthropist George Soros, who funds civil society organisations throughout the region.

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    For Vajnai, the left-wing politician, the local alliance between Stummer and Vattamany has implications for the April election.

    Fidesz is projected to win a majority of seats in parliament in April elections, but it could fall short of the numbers required to form a government on its own.

    Polls show Jobbik coming in second. A coalition between the parties could conceivably form a party.

    Jobbik members have repeatedly stated that a coalition with Fidesz won't happen. Still, Vajnai believes it could.

    Though the referendum was deemed invalid due to low turnout, both Vajnai and Dori Garai, the founder of Livable Elizabeth Town, saw it as a success.

    About 80 percent of the votes cast on Sunday night came from the inner-city area directly impacted by the party district, and 78 percent were in favour of closing bars at midnight, Garai said in a statement.

    Following the referendum, Vattamany has promised to take measures to improve the lives of party district residents.

    Vajnai was encouraged by the Fidesz mayor's promise to improve living conditions.

    In his view, a group of people were organised to challenge Fidesz, which made a concession. This shows "big power" shortly before the election, Vajnai said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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