Orban's Olympic Dream Threatened by Budapest Referendum Push

Updated on
  • Budapest may rescind candidacy for 2024 Games next week: Mayor
  • Olympic bid turns into political challenge for prime minister

The logo of host city candidate Budapest for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games on Batthyany square in Budapest, on Jan. 18.

Photographer: Zoltan Mathe/EPA

Budapest neared the brink of withdrawing its bid to host the 2024 Olympics after a group of activists tapped into widespread opposition to the project to force a referendum and deal a blow to Prime Minister Viktor Orban before elections next year.

Budapest Mayor Istvan Tarlos said he may submit a motion to withdraw the Hungarian capital’s bid next Wednesday if reports prove true that Orban’s government no longer supports the candidacy, Index news website reported on Friday. Earlier, Momentum announced it had successfully united the divided opposition to gather more than 266,000 signatures against the Hungarian capital’s bid, easily eclipsing the 138,000 required to initiate a plebiscite.

With Budapest a long-shot to host the Olympics behind Los Angeles and Paris, Momentum has made no secret that it’s targeting a symbolic issue to prevent Orban from winning a third consecutive term in 2018. The group, which is converting itself into a political party, contends that instead of the Games, more funding should go to hospitals and schools, whose dilapidated conditions have sparked streets protests. Opinion polls show a majority would reject hosting the Olympics in a ballot.

“We’ve managed to knock the first brick from the wall,” Momentum President Andras Fekete-Gyor told reporters on Friday. Momentum will now try to push its cause across the country of almost 10 million people and acquaint itself with more local issues, he said.

By Friday, the Olympics, once a dream for Orban, an avid sports fan who has launched a spending spree on stadiums across the country, became a political liability. The parliamentary leader of his Fidesz party, Lajos Kosa, told reporters that the Olympics was a matter for the Budapest municipality. Fellow party member Zsolt Borkai, head of the Hungarian Olympic Committee, blamed the opposition for undercutting the city’s chances and also said “it’s now up to the Budapest Assembly” to decide if it wants to stay in contention.

Unpalatable Choices

Orban is also facing questions over the cost of the Games, which have sown economic turmoil in previous hosts such as Athens and Rio de Janeiro. He now has a range of unpalatable choices, according to Attila Tibor Nagy from the Centre for Fair Political Analysis in Budapest.

If they don’t pull the bid before the ballot, ruling party officials can work to delay a referendum until after the winner is chosen in September or hold it in the summer, when it’s less likely that turnout will reach the majority needed to make it binding, Nagy said. They may also try to convince the courts to scrap the initiative. Last year the government thwarted a vote on an unpopular ban on Sunday store openings by dropping the rule.

“The government’s main aim now is to contain the political damage from its Olympic bid ahead of the elections,” Nagy said by phone. “It’s become a politically uncomfortable issue.”

Even if the referendum gets a green light, the opposition has an uphill battle to challenge Orban on the national stage. Fidesz has more support than all opposition parties combined, according to the latest Median poll. The next parliamentary election is expected to be held in the spring of 2018.