Worries of government intervention plague final day of Nolimpia campaign

February 16, 2017

Photo: nyugat.hu

Thursday marks the final full day for the Momentum Movement’s Nolimpia campaign to collect signatures in its drive to force a referendum on whether Budapest should withdraw its application to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. The group must collect the signatures of some 138,000 Budapest residents to satisfy the requirements set by the Budapest Elections Office (FVI), and most recent numbers indicate that the campaign is on track to reach the target.

But some have begun to worry that the Fidesz government, which has a deep interest in seeing the Olympic bid succeed, could try to stand in the way of such a referendum, even if enough signatures are collected. Last week, a lawyer for Fidesz-aligned civil organization CÖF indicated in pro-government media that the organization may legally dispute the number of required signatures as outlined by the FVI, arguing that the number was derived from the number of voters with permanent Budapest addresses, and does not reflect those with temporary residence permits in the city. CÖF argues that since temporary residents may also vote in citywide referendums, they too must be calculated into the total number of voters in the city, 10 percent of whom must provide their signatures to force the referendum. Under these criteria, some 150,000 signatures would be required.

The FVI has declared that it will not modify the number of signatures it required in its initial approval of the referendum question. But in the case of Nolimpia surpassing the prescribed 138,000 but not meeting the 150,000 favored by CÖF and other pro-Olympic interests, a protracted legal battle could ensue in the National Elections Committee, which could go all the way up to the Curia, Hungary’s highest court.

Constitutional lawyer Csaba Tordai told blog Kettős Mérce that laws related to local referendums are unclear because they don’t specify how to calculate the required 10 percent of residents to approve an initiative.

“The Fundamental Law stipulates that those with permanent and temporary residence alike have voting rights in local elections in a given town,” Tordai said. “And those who have voting rights in local elections can participate in local referendums.”

This would indicate that, according to the Fundamental Law, those with temporary residence must also be taken into account. However, if such a standard were applied in this case, it would be a break from decades of practice where only permanent residents have been used to calculate signatures required for an initiative, as was initially determined by the FVI.

MTI Photo: Noémi Bruzák

Elections expert Robert László agrees that the law is unclear on the matter, but he acknowledges that a valid legal argument could be made for raising the required signatures to 150,000. He told ATV television that the government has already announced it would use every possible tool to undermine the referendum, and Nolimpia must gather around 200,000 signatures to be sure of bypassing that opposition.

Dream or nightmare?

Regardless of how many signatures are collected (the results are set to be announced late Friday), a round-table debate will take place next Wednesday where the merits of a Budapest Olympics will be argued by its detractors and advocates. Momentum co-chair Anna Orosz will lead the “Dream or Nightmare?” discussion, and present her group’s arguments against the bid. Budapest Olympics Movement president Attila Szalay-Berzeviczy and sports director for Budapest’s Olympics application Attila Mizsér, among others, will argue in favor of the city hosting the games.

Anna Orosz      Photo: Gábor Ancsin

Szalay-Berzeviczy, in an interview with weekly magazine Magyar Narancs, said he had been open to the idea of holding a referendum on the Olympics but withdrawing the application now would represent a loss of prestige for the country, and such a referendum now would be “untimely.”

“Of course the opponents could say that [loss of prestige] is nothing compared to the danger that the country would avoid [by pulling out of the Olympic bid],” he said. “However, we who know why the Olympics are good would warn Hungary against the wasted two years and the international fiasco.”

One of the Momentum Movement’s primary arguments against holding the Olympics is the monumental cost. Critics argue that the original budget proposed in the impact study commissioned by the city is likely to be inflated several times over, citing as an example the expense of hosting the FINA World Swimming Championships later this year, which has already more than quadrupled original estimates. According to estimates by index.hu, expenses related to Budapest’s 2024 application alone could grow up to HUF 34.48 billion (USD 119 million), well over three times its original budget of HUF 10 billion.

But Szalay-Berzeviczy doesn’t consider exponential increases to the budget to be problematic. As he put it: “It’s important what word you use. There’s a difference between the budget slipping away and being supplemented.” The impact study is merely an initial calculation and not scripture, he said.

Momentum must submit its signatures to the Budapest Elections Office by 4pm Friday, and will close down its 20 Budapest collection points at 11am that day.