“They did not know it was impossible so they did it.”
…announced the leader of Momentum loudly and clearly.
That is how many signatures they collected to call for a referendum about the delusional plans to organize the 2024 Olympic games in Budapest. Despite the deadly apathy of Hungarians who lost hope that they can ever oppose their government.
It all happened very fast. The referendum question was approved for collecting signatures in December, and activists had four weeks to deliver at least 138 thousand valid signatures of Budapest inhabitants. Analysts estimated around 60 thousand signatures can be gathered, because people are apathetic and generally cautious of signing their real names on anti-Fidesz lists.
Plus, Orbán was years-deep into this delusion of grandeur. 60 thousand signatures would have been a minor pressure on government, but not enough to avert the tragedy.
Hungarian-speakers can watch the video of the last 24 hours of the collection here.
The mood was tense. Four weeks is hardly enough for a country to wake up from a stupor and realize that not all is lost. During those four weeks people had been fired for liking Momentum on Facebook, activists had been attacked collecting signatures, people who signed were called enemies of the nation and traitors, and Orbán’s fans were frightened by the thought of the locus of their control being symbolically castrated. One attacker hit with a wine bottle, another tried to destroy the collected signatures.
In the meantime, opinion polls about the Olympics kept coming in and the public seemed to wake up to the possibility of defeating the government on this one. They learned that
- others are hating the idea of Olympics as well, and
- even Fidesz-supporters are against it.
- Opponents are an overwhelming majority (not something you learn from state media though), and that
- someone (else) is actually doing something.
In the land of apathy where the government’s most important message is that resistance is always futile, the mere thought that people’s opinion can stop the government was almost revolutionary. People forgot how to resist, why to resist, and that it was their country after all.
And yet, Momentum collected a whopping 266 151 signatures. That’s names and addresses of people. As a journalist mused:
“Tomorrow the NAV (tax authority) will launch 266 151 tax audits at randomly selected Budapest addresses.”
Orbán’s fears of an opposition referendum
If you follow Hungarian politics, you may know that referendums are a touchy subject. PM Orbán has a downright fetish for them (which populist does not?) ever since he managed to deliver a major blow to his predecessor and populist-in-charge (then-PM Gyurcsány) with a referendum in 2008. This may explain why referendum attempts by the opposition are crushed in their buds (even if it takes physical violence by football thugs).
So when a friend told me that a new political movement, Momentum, accidentally managed to get a referendum question approved, I was understandably in disbelief.
Granted, they were only allowed to ask Budapest inhabitants. And even though Olympic games are nominally organised by cities, as opposed to countries, it is not outlandish to measure their expected costs as percentage of the national GDP. Especially for such a tiny country.
A golden shower of public money
Momentum announced last Friday that 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” – wrote Bloomberg, omitting that some parties of the opposition were in two minds about the Olympics.
Olympics and major sporting events are finally getting the reputation they deserve: corrupt, nationalist affairs with only cronies and organizers getting rich on them – while countries going bankrupt on single-serving sport infrastructure and eye watering consulting contracts.
Orbán’s Olympic delusion was no different. It would bring a golden shower of uncounted public money, and thus even the opposition found it difficult to oppose the economic suicide attempt.*
Firstly, because even the opposition is apologetic to nationalism – and nationalism is the topmost catnip of supporters of the Olympics. Many even argued that “I am Hungarian” – and thus will not sign the call for a referendum. (OK, that’s not an argument – but the government couldn’t supply them with a better one.)
But more importantly, even opposition cronies start drooling at the thought of the golden shower of uncounted public money wasted on “national greatness”. Which, as we know, we cannot put a price tag on.
Even the aborted application cost eye-watering amounts of public money
Apart from the shameful “feasibility study” by PwC, the committee of sport-related corruption already spent around 120 million euros on the application. It includes such pride-inducing items as 100 thousand euros on business cards.
And where else could the public buy 15 hectares of swampland for the bargain basement price of 3.67 million euros per hectare? (I mean, sell it, if you are a loyalist crony and happen to have a piece of useless swampland.)
But sure, they would bring in the whole project on budget. A budget, which is officially estimated at 9% of the country’s GDP – even before corruption and 8 years before the event. There was only a “minor corruption risk” – as PwC kindly put it.
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* OK, I am unfair to opposition parties. There was one non-Fidesz party that stepped behind Momentum in full force, the satirical joke party. They crowdfunded a delightful campaign with slogans like:
- “Public spending matters more than participation.”
- “If we set fire to this much money we would attract more tourists.”
- “Before the Olympics we should perhaps organize a democracy.”
- “Contemporary Greek ruins for Hungary!” Sponsored by healthcare and education.
And when the defeat was announced:
- “Did you know that the Budapest Olympics will be organized ABROAD?”
Featured image: valasz.hu