Will Romania’s Marosvásárhely elect a Hungarian mayor this weekend?

The contrast between two Transylvanian towns — Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca) and Marosvásárhely (Târgu-Mureș) could not be greater. Multicultural Kolozsvár, now that it has completely shaken off the rather dark years of ultranationalist mayor Gheorghe Funar (1992-2004), is truly unique in the region. Its city centre is bustling with students, dotted with every variety of cafés, pubs and restaurants, it attracts large numbers of international tourists and businesspeople, free wifi access provided by the municipal government is widely available in public squares, and this “hip” urban centre feels much larger than it actually is, with its population of 325,000–16% of which is ethnic Hungarian. Despite some points of contention surrounding the lack of bilingual (Romanian/Hungarian) street signs, former Prime Minister of Romania Emil Boc, and the mayor of Kolozsvár since 2012, has been far more open to creating a multicultural and multilingual urban centre in the heart of Transylvania. City Council includes four ethnic Hungarian councillors and Anna Horváth, another Hungarian, is Kolozsvár’s deputy mayor.

A visit 80 km to the east of Kolozsvár, to the town of Marosvásárhely, tells a very different story. I travelled to Marosvásárhely a couple of years ago and while I kept thinking that Kolozsvár was easily a place in which I could  comfortably and happily live, Transylvania’s other major city reminded me of the many sleepy, provincial towns that dot Hungary and the Carpathian Basin in general. Marosvásárhely, with a population of 133,000, of which 45% is ethnic Hungarian, has been governed by nationalist Mayor Dorin Florea  since the year 2000. Mr. Florea has on numerous occasions been accused of explicit racism towards the town’s large ethnic Hungarian minority. In 2013, he was fined by Romania’s anti-discrimination tribunal for having barred a Hungarian festival in the city centre, purely on ethnic lines. Mayor Florea had declared that as long as he is mayor, there are to be no Hungarian community events in public, city-owned spaces.

Bilingual (Romanian/Hungarian) street signs in Marosvásárhely pre-date Mr. Florea’s tenure, but there is a real sense among the town’s 60,000 Hungarians that they are second class citizens and perceived as enemies of the Romanian majority. A friend of mine and resident of Marosvásárhely, who is employed by the postal service, explained how Hungarian is effectively banned in the workplace and how this ban is even enforced by his ethnic Hungarian supervisor.

On Sunday, Marosvásárhely residents will vote for a new mayor. While Mr. Florea is running for re-election, he will face off with an ethnic Hungarian, who is running as an independent candidate. Zoltán Soós is a respected museum director, but he has now taken the leap into the world of municipal politics. Mr. Soós used to be a member of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (Romániai Magyar Demokrata Szövetség – RMDSZ), but he is running as an independent, in order to appeal to those Hungarians who gravitate to two smaller, more conservative ethnic Hungarian parties. Analysts suggest that Mr. Soós may also attract some Romanian voters, who are aware of just how visibly Marosvásárhely has fallen behind regionally, in terms of development, and especially when compared with Kolozsvár.

Zoltán Soós. Photo: Facebook

Zoltán Soós. Photo: Facebook

As such, Mr. Soós’ campaign is about much more than minority rights, as important as this topic is to his core base of supporters. He points out that some 400 companies once based in Marosvásárhely have either gone out of business or have moved and per capita investments in the city are far lower than the national average. If elected, he promises regular, strategic consultations with local small and medium-sized businesses. Mr. Soós also aims to expand and invest in the local international airport (known as Aeroportul Transilvania Târgu Mureș), which also has direct Wizz Air flights to and from Budapest. Stopping the city’s brain drain, especially among younger generations, is also critical and Mr. Soós hopes to accomplish this through new scholarships and grants, as well as the creation of new local jobs. It’s an important and tough task, considering that the town’s population has declined by over 25,000 residents in the past two decades. Much of his program is geared towards keeping young Marosvásárhely residents from leaving and making them feel valued and engaged in developing the town’s future. The mayor hopes to tap into the Norwegian Fund for support to achieve his goals.

More than at any time in the past 16 years, a minority candidate with some inclusive, innovative ideas has a realistic chance of unseating the city’s authoritarian and nationalist strongman. Residents head to the polls on June 5th.

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