The illiberal democracy and the revanchist city – The spatial and political transformation of Budapest since 2010

“We need to give back public spaces to the citizens” – argued István Tarlós, the mayor of Budapest and a member of the nationalist-conservative Fidesz party when he tried to justify the city’s criminalizing of homelessness in most of its public spaces. The message here was clear: homeless people do not qualify for citizen status and therefore the city can legitimately banish them from spaces they could share with „the citizens”, who do not live in public spaces. The limitations on the ways people can spend their time in public spaces signify the boundaries within which homeless people can exist in the city, but also the boundaries of citizenship, of belonging to the political community. The ways cities regulate, plan, and define public space, not only influence the aesthetics of the physical spaces and the laws regulating public spaces, but also set up social and political boundaries for their residents.

The ways in which criminalization of homelessness, gentrification and the privatization of urban spaces limits access of poor and lower middle class residents to public spaces in Europe and the United States have been widely discussed. The revanchist city (to use Neil Smith’s term) seeks to isolate and push out poor residents by criminalizing their everyday activities and the welfare regime itself, arguing that punitive measures are needed in order to bring “traditional values” back to the city, by which a neoconservative ideal of cleanliness and order in both physical and social terms is meant (Smith 1996). Those who fail to match this ideal have no place in the revanchist city and its political community. Both redistribution and the rights-based conceptualization of citizenship are seen as“liberal” values that need to be abandoned; publicness and citizenship are no longer to be considered rights or public goods. This means that it is not acknowledged that public space should be accessible for all social groups; the publicness, the accessibility of public space is not a social value, but an issue of public order. One needs to be orderly to be acknowledged as a citizen and to gain physical access to public spaces. The revanchist city excludes not only people living in housing poverty, but anyone unable to comply with the “traditional values” defined by powerful political actors. Access to public spaces, to publicness and thus to citizenship, is defined,as a privilege a resident gains through material wealth and political compliance, rather than a right.

Before we turn to concrete examples, another term must be introduced. This term did not emerge from academia, but from the political manifesto of Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary. In the summer of 2014, a couple of months after his re-election, Orbán announced the ruling party’s break with “liberal democracy”, and claimed to be building an “illiberal democracy” that relies on the “traditional values” of the nation,; without abandoning all liberal values, the state’s political ideology puts the nation at the center. Orbán’s phrase “work-based society” makes more clear what the „real values” of the nation are. The “illiberal democracy” and the “work-based society” together undergird a revanchist regime that does not seek to represent or even tolerate (certain kinds of) social actors and their claims that do not comply with the social order of the conservative bourgeoisie. Those who do not participate in economic production and those who represent values that do not reinforce the ideals of this regime will not be tolerated.

What differentiates the illiberal democracy and the revanchist cities of Europe and the United States, is the totality of the former. As Neil Smith (1996) argues, one does not need to be a neoconservative to implement revanchist measures, as many “left-wing” or “liberal” mayors did in the United States. Budapest became a revanchist city long before the nationalist-conservatives came into power. Homeless people have been chastised and pushed out from public spaces by the police; the social housing stock was privatized and poor residents pushed out; and public spaces were redesigned to appeal to tourists, foreign investors and the bourgeoisie. However, because the previous political leadership did not have the ideological and political power in procedural terms to bring revanchism beyond the local, to the national level, the revanchist city could not become total. By gaining a two-thirds majority in the elections of 2010 and 2014, and thereby neutralising almost all checks and balances in the system, the Orbán regime could make revanchism the basis of governance on the national level.

The new political and social boundaries are both reflected and reproduced in Budapest’s urban space (although not only there, of course). Many political messages specifically target spaces of symbolic significance of the capital city. There are three important ways public spaces are transformed to comply with the illiberal revanchist regime. First is the public humiliation of people living in poverty. Second is the reformulation of city spaces and their meaning so to dismiss any historical reminders that do not comply with the “traditional values” defined by the ruling conservative parties. Third is the isolation of political opponents from both physical and abstract public spaces (the city spaces and the media). From this exclusion through public humiliation, political isolation, and the backlash against the public space itself, however, new forms of political protest are emerging, which lead to anti-revanchist practices that could be a basis of a new sense of publicness, and therefore of democratic change.

The public humiliation of the poor

One of the most well-known measures the Orbán government took after 2010 was the criminalization of homeless people living in public spaces. The banning by parliament and local government of the use of public spaces “for habitation” has received widespread attention. While the banishment and public humiliation of poor people is truly scandalous, these kinds of measures are hardly unique. Homeless and poor people are criminalized in many ways in revanchist cities, as they were in Hungary before 2010 as well.

What is particular to Hungary is that these measures were included in its Fundamental Law, with which the governing parties replaced the Constitution. In fact, one of the reasons why the ruling parties amended the Fundamental Law was the fact that the Constitutional Court had previously struck down the law criminalizing homelessness. Amending the Fundamental Law, allowed homeless people to be banished again. This way, the Orbán regime could show their exclusive power over Hungarian public space in both physical and abstract terms, and could include the revanchist city’s morality in the most important legal document of the country.

This public morality play about the government’s heroic efforts to free public space from the non-working, homeless and poor intruders has been performed not only on the abstract level of laws and regulations, but in public space. Passers-by could see police officers identifying and arresting poor people in urban spaces, enforcing the order of the revanchist city. The aim of this morality play in the official discourse is of course to ban poor people from public spaces. Yet it is also aimed at the humiliation of poor people through their public treatment as non-citizens, as people who do not have the right to be in public space.

Homeless person being taken to the police station for habitation in public space. Source:

Homeless person being taken to the police station for habitation in public space.

Less frequently mentioned in the foreign news is another form of the public humiliation of the poor introduced in Hungary. The other core element of revanchism is the myth of the welfare cheat, the lazy and fraudulent poor person, who needs to be cut off from state funds, or at least punished, if he/she still applies for social benefits. Hungary has radically cut back on all forms of social benefits, and channeled the resources into a public work programme. Those who do not suffer from long-term illness and are not disabled, are eligible only for this benefit, which requires at least 30 days of community work a year. The social aid they receive when not participating in community work activities is 22 800 Forint (approximately 76 Euro) per month. When they have the opportunity to do community work, the benefit is 46 000 Forint (approximately 153 Euro) per month, still much lower than the subsistence minimum, and not covered by the laws on workers’ rights.

Community workers in their neon yellow vests. Source:

Community workers in their neon yellow vests.

Such humiliating revanchist workfare measures have spread all over the United States and Europe. In Hungary, however, this humiliation happens not only in the private realm of welfare offices, but, quite importantly, in public spaces. Workfare workers must wear neon yellow vests for the work that they do, in most cases, in public spaces (on the streets and in parks). According to the Public Workers’ Movement for the Future, a grassroots organization of community workers in Hungary, these workers are often not even called by their own names, but by assigned numbers. The work they do is often completely useless, since many local governments, lacking a need for that many workers, are unable to organize meaningful work activities for them. Thus, working citizens can spot welfare recipients in the public space doing unproductive work (or work regarded by most people as humiliating), wearing neon yellow vests, and being addressed as numbers.

Social boundaries are made clear and visible in public space through the public humiliation of the homeless and non-working poor people all over the country. While the aim of the revanchist city and the illiberal democracy might seem to be the banishment of poor people from public space, the aim is in fact to publicly humiliate poor people and make a morality play of their punishment.

Redesigning public spaces, rewriting history

Revanchism does not only signify social boundaries by publicly humilating poor people, but also by rewriting and remodeling public space so it cannot accommodate any ideas that oppose revanchism. Budapest, the capital city, has a unique role in this symbolic process. Since 2010, many urban spaces have been renamed to allow the governing parties to announce the revanchist, conservative ideological shift. Some of the new names are deeply symbolic: Republic Square’s new name is John Paul II Square; Moscow Square became Kálmán Széll Square (after a nationalist prime minister from the turn of the 20th century); Roosevelt Square was renames after (after 19th century conservative reformist politician István Széchenyi. These particular former street or square names were not significantly important for the Hungarian opposition. Yet this street name revanchism is not directed at the opposition, but rather, towards establishing symbolic ownership of these spaces. There could be no street names signifying political ideas other than conservative revanchism.

The renaming of city spaces was nonetheless only the beginning. New monuments that supposedly represent traditional conservative values, have also been erected, while monuments to figures considered to be leftist symbols (such as poet Attila József or the politician Lajos Kossuth) have been moved to less frequented places.

One of the new monuments, the Monument Commemorating the Victims of the German Occupation, caused a huge public outcry and resulted in a months-long protest that still continues on Szabadság (Freedom) Square. The monument consists of the figure of an angel (a symbol of Hungary) being attacked by an eagle (representing Germany). The monument represents conservative Hungarian views about WWII and the killing and deportation of people from Hungary’s Jewish, Roma and LGBT communities and of political enemies of the Nazi regime. In this interpretation, disputed by most historians, Hungary did not play an active role in the deportations and in crimes committed by the Nazi regime, but was forced to cooperate due to its occupation by German troops. Therefore, many found the monument offensive and inappropriate. Amidst public outcry and an occupation of the square by protesters, the monument was erected during the night, after protesters had been pushed out by the police. The monument has not yet been officialy inaugurated, and protesters have erected signs explaining how the monument falsifies history, laid stones commemorating the victims, and continue to organize talks and discussions next to it.

The Monument Commemorating the Victims of German Occupation, the protesters’ signs and the nativity scene in December, 2014 on Szabadság (Freedom) Square. Source:

The Monument Commemorating the Victims of German Occupation, the protesters’ signs and the nativity scene in December, 2014 on Szabadság (Freedom) Square.

The monument has become significant not only because of the political message it was meant to send out about the ability of the ruling parties to force their ideas on others, to rewrite history by denying the oppression of vulnerable groups, and appropriate other people’s victimhood. It is significant also because they could not manage to push out opposing ideas. The battle over this small public space is not over, however. In December, the local government (also led by the ruling party) set up a nativity scene, a symbol of Christian values right next to the protesters’ spot commemorating the victims (mostly of Jewish decent).

The spatial isolation of protests

Apart from forcing political ideas on people by rewriting the history of oppression and appropriating public spaces to represent only what conforms to their ideology, the Orbán regime has also used urban design elements to keep people away from opposing political beliefs. Before the elections, the government and the municipalities rebuilt a number of squares, including Kossuth Square, on which the parliament is located, and the very square from whence the Attila József and Kossuth statues were removed to less frequented places. By setting up a construction site with fences, they successfuly made the square unavailable for protest for months.

Thus, one way to exclude the protesters, was the construction process itself, much like when the city of Philadelphia started a construction project to evict Occupy Wallstreet protesters from Dilworth Plaza Another method of exclusion is the new design of the square itself. While up until recently politicians parked their cars outside the building, they now use an underground carpark, allowing them to leave and enter the building with their cars without interacting with the public if there is a demonstration. Moreover, a pond was built in the middle of the square, which seemingly has no other function but to form a barrier to protesters gathering in front of the parliament, given that during autumn and winter there is no water in it.

The new design of Kossuth Square with the parliament and the pond/barrier. Source:

The new design of Kossuth Square with the parliament and the pond/barrier.

The construction plans and renovation began after a protest took place in December, 2011, when protesters chained themselves together to block the entrances to the building and pressure politicians not to enter to vote for qualified majority laws that threatened democracy. The new design of the square makes it impossible to repeat such protests, and makes them more easily contained by the police. The regime thus excludes opposing political ideas not only by renaming spaces and erecting monuments, but also by creating seemingly neutral new urban design that physically disables or isolates protests.

The broadcast of the public television about the 2012 demonstration in front of the State Opera. Source: hir24.

The broadcast of the public television about the 2012 demonstration in front of the State Opera.
Source: hir24.

This isolation nevertheless does not only occur in physical, but also in abstract spaces. One of the greatest resources of the Orbán regime is the state-funded media, where only positive news can be aired about the government. Thus, while public television and radio in Hungary are supposed to be public spaces in abstract terms, these “public” spaces and most of the private media are completely colonized by the ruling parties, leading to the exclusion of opposing views. Not only does this mean that they almost never report anything critical about the government, but they also falsify news and events in their broadcasts. On the January 2nd, 2012 there was a large demonstration with thousands of people gathering against the Fundamental Law, in front of the State Opera, where the ruling party’s members and their supporters were holding a ball to celebrate the newly accepted law. The demonstration was presented by the public media with a reporter standing in a spot close to the police line which none of the protesters could cross, and thus, almost none of them were shown in the TV report.

Press coverage is extremely important for protesters, since there are many people who do not have any other access to political ideas. By isolating protesters from many news sources and by falsifying news, they can exclude many opposing views from the political arena.

A new sense of publicness opposed to revanchism

While there is a backlash against public space in the revanchist city and the illiberal democracy (meaning on both local and national level), there is also a new sense of public space emerging through protest against the regime’s undemocratic measures. Since 2010, protesters have started to occupy public spaces that had never been occupied before. They use space creatively and even break laws to protest against injustices. These protests had occured sporadically before, but not that many people from different social backgrounds (the young and elderly, the homeless and housed, the poor and the middle class) were involved, and they were not as organized as activists are now.

Protesters march for hours, occupy local government offices, university halls, empty buildings owned by the local governments); chain themselves together; lie down on the ground to express solidarity with criminalized homeless people; stand in the doors of families who are to be evicted. Often arrested or ticketed by the police, tthey transgress the social and political boundaries that have been so carefully set up by the revanchist, illiberal leadership.

According to Don Mitchell (2003), access to public space and through that, access to full citizenship, can be achieved through the rights-based reconceptualization of public space. Even though Hungarian protesters do not have the power and the resources of the revanchist city and illiberal democracy, they introduce the idea of the right to the city and the right to public space to political discourse. They experience the power that comes from collective action and the value in the public itself, which cannot be appropriated through humiliating and undemocratic laws, distasteful monuments, or fraudulent media discourse. There are new democratic spaces emerging, and, although one should not over-estimate the effects of this new sense of publicness, they represent a fundamental change in the perception of politics and democracy for many citizens.

The grassroots homeless advocacy group, The City is for All did not only occupy squares or streets which are usually considered public spaces, but also public offices, empty buildings owned or privatized by local governments, and front yards of houses owned by the local government, to prevent evictions. The activists of the Student Network moved into a university classroom for weeks in order to protest budget cuts and state surveillance in higher education. Civil groups standing up on several different issues from budget cuts to corruption occupy streets and squares where no one protested before.

These activists do not only take back the spaces from where the “disorderly” public is being excluded, but they simultaneously create and inhabit new public spaces; new public spaces that could not exist in the revanchist city before 2010 either. These new public spaces, the experience of ownership over city spaces, and civil power, represent the emergence of the rights-based reconceptualization not only of public spaces, and of urban democracy.


Mitchell, D. (2003). The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space, New York: Guilford Press.

Smith, N. (1996). The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. London: Routledge.


foto_amonkataKata Amon is a junior research fellow at the Center for Policy Studies at the Central European University in Budapest. She is also an activist of the grassroots homeless advocacy group, A Város Mindenkié (The City is for All). She received her first MA at the Corvinus University of Budapest in International Relations and her second MA at the Central European University in Gender Studies. Her research interests include the political constructions of citizenship, urban democracy, housing policies, and feminism.


4 Responses to The illiberal democracy and the revanchist city – The spatial and political transformation of Budapest since 2010

  1. Peter Howe says:

    Very biased and wrong argumented post.

    „One of the most well-known measures the Orbán government took after 2010 was the criminalization of homeless people living in public spaces.”

    This was supported by the 99,99% of the population.

    „Monument Commemorating the Victims of the German Occupation”

    This was supported by the 90% of the population and criticized by the 0,001% loud and agressive intellectuals.

  2. Csift says:

    It’s a radical extremist leftliberal inhuman opinion, less 2% political supporting of hungarian nation. From many-many half-truth, rough-and-ready paranoid scripture.

  3. Hakan Bala says:

    “The message here was clear: homeless people do not qualify for citizen status”

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