Budapest Assembly could discuss Olympic bid withdrawal as early as this week, but Momentum insists on referendum

February 20, 2017

On Friday afternoon, the Momentum Movement submitted over 266,000 signatures to the Budapest Elections Office, gathered over the course of a month from Budapest residents who want a referendum on whether the city should retract its bid to host the 2024 Olympics. The unexpected level of success of what Momentum called the “Nolimpia” campaign (nearly twice as many signatures were collected than required by law to force a referendum) set off a disagreement between the national government and Budapest Municipality, each trying to downplay its own responsibility for having pushed for the Olympics from the start.

On Thursday, a day before the conclusion of the signature drive, Fidesz party leader Lajos Kósa told a press conference that the city of Budapest, not the national government, had submitted the Olympic application and would therefore be responsible for handling any popular opposition to the bid. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán himself reportedly made similar comments during last week’s Fidesz-KDNP party congress in Visegrád, namely that “Not Fidesz and not the government but rather Budapest must react, since not the party nor the government but Budapest applied to organize [the Olympics] in 2024.”

The Fidesz government’s attempt to disavow itself from an Olympic bid increasingly fraught with opposition could signal that a quiet retraction of the application might be forthcoming, which would save the government the embarrassment of a potentially damaging referendum less than a year ahead of 2018 elections. By shifting blame and responsibility onto the city, the government is behaving as if it has no stake in the Olympics and until now had only been facilitating the will of the people on the issue.

But no amount of blame-shifting can diminish how vigorously the Fidesz-KDNP government clamored for the Olympics. In a parliamentary vote in July 2015, Fidesz, KDNP and Jobbik parties all voted in support of Budapest applying to host the games, while opposition parties MSZP, LMP, DK and Együtt (Together) all voted against.

Budapest Mayor István Tarlós promised shortly after the signatures were submitted on Friday that he would seriously consider withdrawing the 2024 application, but later in the weekend shot back at government attempts to leave him holding the bag, declaring: “I won’t let them pin this fight on the capital.”

Tarlós continued: “It is downright impudence that the Fidesz faction leader Lajos Kósa would shift the responsibility for the Olympics onto Budapest and the municipal government. If Budapest was responsible, then why was state money spent on so many things, and why did we get a government commissioner for the Olympics, and why did a vast majority of the Hungarian Parliament vote on the question?”

Tarlós was reacting directly to statements made by Kósa, but the latter is not the only prominent member of government to make a sudden about-face. Orbán painted Hungary’s hosting of the games as of distinct national significance when he said in December 2015: “I can safely say that [the Olympics] is a national issue. The Hungarian government completely supports the Hungarian Olympic Committee, which stands at the head of this national issue.”

Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, told Associated Press on Saturday that Momentum was making a political issue out of the Olympics simply because they “wanted to make a name for themselves,” and in so doing had seriously threatened the city’s chances of hosting the games.

“The referendum is obviously considered by them to be a good tool to put themselves on the map of the political landscape in Hungary,” Bach said.

Even so, Fidesz’s step back and Tarlós’ immediate willingness to discuss a withdrawal of the bid could indicate that the referendum will not be allowed to take place. As we wrote earlier, a number of legal roadblocks could be used by the government and judicial system to delay a referendum until after the International Olympic Committee makes its decision on the host city in September. But Tarlós’ statements suggest that the Budapest Municipality could discuss a pullout as early as this week. Momentum Movement president András Fekete-Győr expressed to both Tarlós and Orbán that withdrawing the application would be taking away the right of the people to decide, adding that Budapest residents had made it clear they want a vote.

“It will be cowardice and betrayal if they withdraw,” Fekete-Győr said.

A February poll by the Publicus Institute shows that 76 percent of Hungarians believe that the money it would take to organize the Olympics would be better spent on things such as health-care and education, while two-thirds do not support the country hosting the games at all.