Budapest to withdraw Olympic bid as government avoids referendum

February 23, 2017

The city of Budapest will withdraw its application to host the 2024 Olympic Games after a decision was reached Wednesday afternoon by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (pictured right), Budapest Mayor István Tarlós and Hungarian Olympic Committee (MOB) president Zsolt Borkai. The three men believe that keeping Budapest in the running would be a “serious loss of prestige” for the country, and “the only responsible decision is for the city and the Hungarian Olympic Committee to withdraw the application.”

“Without unity it isn’t worth pushing the application through to the end, and the government decided to make the recommendation to the city that under the circumstances it should withdraw the application,” said Tarlós, who had publicly acknowledged last Friday that he would consider a withdrawal after a successful signature drive appeared likely to force a referendum on the issue.

Immediately after the decision was publicized, government officials began assigning blame for the failed Olympic bid to “opposition parties” which they accused of stepping back from earlier bipartisan support.  A statement was released in the official government gazette on Wednesday evening that declared “responsibility for the dissolution of consent rests on the opposition parties that backed out of earlier decisions.” Numerous opposition parties have stood out against the Olympics, arguing that the money used to organize the games would be better spent on things such as  health-care and education.

Among the most outspoken critics of the Olympic bid is the activist group-turned political party Momentum Movement, which submitted more than 266,000 signatures to the Budapest Elections Office Friday after a month-long signature drive which aimed to force a referendum on the bid. The more than quarter-million signatures from Budapest residents nearly doubled the required amount to force the referendum, and the apparent success of the campaign sent the government into damage control as the governing Fidesz party attempted to distance itself from the issue, laying responsibility solely upon Budapest and Mayor Tarlós.

Reacting to the decision to withdraw the Olympic application, Momentum Movement declared that Orbán and the government had “fled like cowards” from the desires of more than 266,000 people. Momentum press officer Gergő Papp told index.hu that the group is “sorry the government took away the chance for citizens to finally vote on a government mega-investment.” Papp said the decision to withdraw the application was obviously a technical decision the government made to avoid losing ion a referendum.

Momentum president András Fekete-Győr, who was in a debate with government Olympic commissioner András Fürjes when news of the withdrawal was released, said the government had cheated the people who supported the Olympics and who would have wanted to hold a referendum, which he said would have done a lot for Hungarian democracy. He pointed to Vancouver, Canada, as a city that had held a referendum on the Olympics in 2003, in which supporters of the Olympics had prevailed. The Winter games were ultimately held in that city in 2010.

Photo: nyugat.hu

With the government’s decision, the referendum question of whether the Budapest government should withdraw its Olympic bid becomes a moot point: such a referendum now would be on a question which has already been decided. But the possibility of holding the referendum is not completely lost, and confirmation of the validity of those 266,000 signatures will continue in the Budapest Elections Office. Within 40 days, the office must publicly declare the results of the count and inform Mayor Tarlós, who will then put the question of whether to hold a referendum to the City Assembly. All of those decisions can be legally challenged, which could see the question of whether to hold the referendum pushed all the way up to the Curia, Hungary’s highest court.

Fidesz announced in a statement Wednesday evening that the opposition parties had “betrayed the Olympic cause” and had “lied to everyone about the organizing of the Olympics” after having earlier voted in Parliament to approve the necessary laws for hosting the games.

“The opposition’s obvious goal is to drive the city and the country into a major loss of international prestige, no matter by what betrayal. After the opposition disrupted this political consensus, it reduced the application’s chances to a minimum,” reads the Fidesz statement. (In a July 2015 parliamentary vote, opposition parties MSZP, LMP, DK, PM and Együtt all voted against hosting the Olympics.)

Borkai complained that “self-serving political interests” had caused the Olympic bid to fall apart, and “consensus cannot be restored between the political parties.” He promised to make efforts for Hungary to host an Olympic Games as soon as possible.

“It is sad that a dream, the dream of many people, has now truly vanished,” Borkai said. “Not because Hungary didn’t do well, not because Hungarians and Hungarian athletes weren’t worthy of an Olympics held here, but because the self-serving political interests of a few triumphed over a national issue.”

A national poll released Thursday by the Iránytű Institute found that 59.3 percent of Hungarians do not want the Olympics to be organized in Budapest, while only 35.4 percent were in support of the games. Along party lines, only Fidesz-KDNP supporters were in favor of the Olympics with 65 percent support, while 30 percent of the governing coalition’s supporters opposed hosting the games. Nearly two-thirds of Hungarians think that a referendum should decide the issue.