Youth movement mobilises Budapest against Olympic bid

Youth movement mobilises Budapest against Olympic bid
The five Olympic rings can also be used to symbolise the top five social problems that need to be tackled.
By Blanka Zoldi in Brussels February 9, 2017

Momentum Mozgalom, a recently launched youth movement, is closing in on collecting the 138,000 signatures needed to force a referendum in Budapest on Hungary’s bid to host the 2024 Olympic games. Following this campaign, Momentum will transform itself into a political party and run in the 2018 elections, the movement announced on February 8.

While it is still uncertain that a referendum will definitely be held, the NOlimpia campaign has served as an impressive entree for Momentum, directing public attention to important domestic problems such as the state of health care, education and increasing corruption.

Budapest officially announced its intention to bid to host the Olympics in 2015 – a dream chased by sports fanatic Prime Minister Viktor Orban for more than 15 years. Budapest is competing against Los Angeles and Paris, having already outlasted Hamburg and Rome. The German and Italian cities withdrew their proposals due to local opposition against the cost of organising the games.

Hungarians have not previously been asked whether they would like the 2024 Olympics to be hosted by the capital. While Orban has repeatedly asserted that the Olympic bid has become "a real passion of the Hungarian people”, the National Election Committee and Supreme Court court repeatedly rejected referendum initiatives last year that could have tested this claim.

Launched by university students in the summer of 2016, Momentum was the first organisation to have its referendum question authenticated. Since January 19, the movement has collected over 100,000 signatures from the inhabitants of Budapest. If it can push to 138,000 by the February 17 deadline, a city-wide referendum will be held.

Residents will be asked: “Do you agree that the municipality of Budapest should withdraw its bid to organise the 2024 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games?”

Shortly after Momentum set up its booths across the city, Budapest 2024 Zrt - the company responsible for organising Hungary’s bid - commissioned a survey that showed support for hosting the games at 63% among Hungarian adults. Independent polls, however, show that most Hungarians oppose the Olympic bid. According to a poll carried out by Median in Budapest, 68% of respondents are against, mainly due to the enormous costs.

The tab for hosting the games in Budapest is estimated at around HUF774bn (€2.5bn), according to a feasibility study by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) commissioned by the government. The report, however, is calculated assuming zero corruption, despite Hungary's poor performance in rankings such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI).  

Reports claiming Hungary is spending HUF90bn - 10 times more than the originally planned - on hosting the 2017 World Aquatics Championship offer little hope that a Hungarian Olympics would stay within the original budget.

Five Olympic rings, five problems

Momentum argues that the money could be put to better use. “We like the Olympics (...) but a country should only host the games if it’s the crown to longstanding social success, not when we have to find solutions for urgent problems in the country,” the movement says in a statement.

The five Olympic rings can also be used to symbolise the top five social problems that need to be tackled, the organisation claims: housing, healthcare, education, rural infrastructure, and the general standard of living.

Recent international rankings have shown that Hungary underperforms regional peers in several social areas. The drop in Hungarian students’ performance in PISA tests between 2012 and 2015 was more dramatic than ever before; Hungary was one of the worst performers on the Euro Health Consumer Index, and the country was the sharpest slider in the region in the latest Global Competitiveness Index.

Reflecting the problems, demonstrations by teachers and nurses have rattled the government over the past year or more. However, the cabinet has offered only partial reforms.

Orban's Fidesz party spent most of last year using its harsh campaign against refugees to divert public attention from such domestic problems. The NOlimpia campaign, however, has created something relatively unknown to the ruling party: somebody else has set the public agenda.

Fidesz politicians, Budapest 2024, and other supporters of the Olympic bid have proved reluctant to participate in public debates with Momentum. Pro-government journalist Andras Bencsik simply states that anyone signing Momentum’s petition is a “traitor”.

The government-financed Jozsef Antall Centre of Knowledge – lead by Peter Antall, son of the first democratically elected Hungarian premier Jozsef Antall – has threatened to fire employees if they express public support for Momentum, including liking the movement’s Facebook page. One employee was fired after having raised her voice against restricting employees’ rights to express their opinion.
Most recently, eight police officers reportedly formed a police line around a group collecting signatures at a metro station, preventing people to approach the stand for over an hour, small leftwing opposition party Egyutt wrote on its Facebook page. The police, however, denied that officers had formed a line, adding that only two of the uniformed people were policemen.

Orban has said he will not comment on the campaign against the Olympics until the collection of signatures is over. “If people want to decide on it [the Olympic bid], they will do so,” he remarked. Last year, when the opposition got the go-ahead for a referendum against the government's Sunday shopping ban, Fidesz swiftly abolished the unpopular law, rather than lose face in public.

It is yet unclear, however, whether Momentum will be able to collect the necessary number of valid signatures. Around 15-20% are usually invalid due to mistakes or duplications. However, Momentum is working with over 350 activists and has invited volunteers to take part in door-to-door canvassing.

Opposition parties, which also voiced criticism of the Olympic bid, have offered support. The liberal green LMP (Lehet Mas a Politika, “Politics Can Be Different”) promised to add around 20,000 signatures, and the leftwing PM (Parbeszed Magyarorszagert, “Dialogue for Hungary”) around 9,000.

Yet Momentum may be wary over cooperation with the parties. The youth movement has criticised the opposition for being part of a “discredited elite,” that has failed to stand up to Fidesz.

Momentum has now officially announced that it will transform into a political party that will run in the 2018 elections. The new party says it will target undecided voters, which includes around 32% of the Hungarian population.

"We are ready to cooperate on various issues with any party, just as in the NOlimpia campaign, but it is certain that we have no intention of forming any more concrete political alliance than this. We wish to run independently," Anna Orosz, a leading representative of Momentum, said on ATV.

Since Momentum’s first public appearance in mid January, their popularity jumped close to the level of the country's smaller leftwing opposition parties. Already, 2% of decided voters would vote for the youth movement.