Just a few days before the Hungarian elections in 2014, Gabor Varadi and his running mates stood on a desolate street corner and watched their campaign manager, Bela, shimmy up a crooked utility pole to hang a campaign sign. The pole was well positioned: It sat across from a bus stop right at the mouth of Ukol, a large village in the city of Miskolc. But the sign itself was meager: just a paper flyer that pictured the four men standing shoulder to shoulder, stapled to a large rectangle of cardboard and covered in plastic wrap.
The men had snickered a bit when Gabor first showed it to them.
That’s not much of a sign, one of them had said.
Are you kidding? Gabor had responded, leaning toward the group in a show of mock aggression. This is the best, most beautiful sign in all of Miskolc! We will win by a landslide with just this sign alone!
The men had laughed. But now, with Bela up the pole, and his entourage looking on, Gabor wasn’t sure where to hang it. Too low and his rivals would tear it down or cover it with graffiti. Too high and nobody would notice it at all.
Bela shifted the sign up a few inches.
People won’t be able to read the words, Gabor shouted.
Bela cracked a wide grin, revealing missing teeth.
That’s OK, he shouted back. Most Roma can’t read anyway.
The men laughed again. With the exception of Gabor — who had grown up in a Soviet-era orphanage and had received a state-sponsored education there — it was true that their educations had been inadequate. Though Gabor had a decent apartment in the city center, his running mates lived in the Roma settlements, or ghettos, where most houses lacked electricity or running water. The men had learned that the best way to endure such indignities was to laugh at them whenever possible.
Lately, though, the laughs had been harder to come by. The city’s incumbent mayor was campaigning for re-election on a promise to “eliminate the Roma ghettos.” That ambition had already translated into scores of Roma families being forced out of their homes and onto the streets. The mayor called this dislocation “economic improvement.” The Roma called it ethnic cleansing.
Gabor and his friends were running for seats in Miskolc’s branch of the Roma Self Government, or RSG — a special contingent of the Hungarian government that had been created to give Roma citizens a say in the policies that affected them. Because the seats came with no voting rights and only nominal influence, many Roma had written them off as a farce. But Gabor was committed to working within the existing system. The good fight, he called it. The goal was to build relationships with the men who were pushing for evictions, and to persuade them of a different course.
The string and tape Gabor had brought proved too flimsy to hold the sign in place. They needed something sturdier, Bela said. Maybe wire?
Who do we know that has wire, and can bring it here to us, Gabor asked. None of the candidates owned a car, but some of them had friends who did. Big Man, a large, round fellow who was running for a spot in Gabor’s prospective administration, began making calls on his cell phone. Bela shimmied down the pole, leaned against a stone wall, and lit a cigarette.
The village had been quiet. But now a string of buses arrived, discharging children and parents onto the settlement’s main road and engulfing the candidates in a sea of pink-ribboned ponytails, tattered school bags, and scruffy sneakers.
Gypsies breed like rabbits, an old Roma woman standing near the bus stop said to no one in particular.
Some of the fathers extricated themselves from the mass of children and joined Gabor and the candidates near the telephone pole. Hands shook hands, and talk turned quickly to the election.
Would Gabor win? the fathers wanted to know.
It would depend on how many of his supporters made it to the voting booths, Gabor told them. He’d arranged for volunteers from outside the settlements to taxi voters to the polls on election day, and had set aside some money for bus passes in case there wasn’t enough room in the cars.
Call one of us if you can’t get yourselves to the voting stations, Gabor said. We will have transportation for everyone who needs it.
But transportation wasn’t the only issue. His rivals — backed by Fidesz, Hungary’s leading national party — had outspent him by at least an order of magnitude. Their campaign signs were big and professional and ubiquitous. And if that wasn’t enough, people in the settlements said party affiliates were giving out cash and clothing. Most of the voters seemed to understand that the men sponsoring those handouts were the same ones pushing for the evictions. But who could turn away such gifts when unemployment in the settlements was near total? Gabor had been advising people not to take the bait, but he had nothing to offer in exchange.
Except my beautiful signs, he thought, smirking. There were reasons to be optimistic. When he called town meetings, people came. And when he spoke, they listened. A lot of them were angry, but they knew he was on their side. And however desperate the Roma were, they still had their pride; they resented those handouts as much as they relied upon them.
Finally, a man arrived with wire for the sign. Bela nodded at Gabor and shimmied back up the pole.
Be careful, Gabor warned. It may be electrical wire.
Bela paused, then cracked another half-toothed grin.
Don’t worry, he said. I will collect the electricity in my body, and use it at home.
Later that week, after the votes were cast, the men had reason to beam.
Reporting for this story was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.