Momentum’s surprise triumph defeating the delusional plans of the 2024 Olympics being organized by Budapest is the single most significant political development in Hungary since Fidesz and Orbán came back to power in 2010. For 3 reasons:
- It broke the apathy. For the first time since 2010 resistance was not futile. Authoritarians reach longevity not when they defeat resistance – but when they instill the sentiment that resistance is futile.
- The emergence of youth and expats on the political scene with an actual intention to enter politics – especially given the absence of a credible opposition among parties in parliament today.
- It is about a referendum – and that’s a touchy subject because PM Orbán has a fetish for referendums. And not only that but it took him by surprise.
1. The first real crack on Orbán’s power – when active resistance worked
Having to retreat even on a minor issue can potentially unravel a regime built on the futility of resistance. The quick triumph of Momentum is the first real and publicly visible crack on the building of Fidesz’ grip over Hungary.
I named two tiny cracks before.* Both were symbolic, and not a result of active resistance. They really just showed what was missing from politics – rather than being an actual expression of citizens’ influence.
- The first was in 2012 when months-long online protest and scathing ridicule has forced the President, Pál Schmitt, to resign for plagiarism. The guy was Orbán’s loyal friend, sport-related political persona, once a member of an Olympic team – and one of the pillars of Budapest’s Olympic bid. He was irrelevant, but Orbán didn’t want to lose face and make him resign. He put a lot of force behind Schmitt, but eventually he let go of him. But the president is a symbolic position.
- The second crack happened in 2016 when Fidesz had to perform a U-turn on the mandatory Sunday closure of retail stores. The policy was uncalled for, wildly unpopular, and produced farcical results. It was only introduced to divert attention from the scandal of the day – a vintage Fidesz tactic. But when a referendum (!) about it became possible (despite football hooligans and every possible legal obstacle put in its way) – Orbán was forced to drop it. It didn’t go down well for him, we were punished for it. And again, this was only passive resistance (opinion polls). There was no activism, no citizen resistance.
The third, and most significant, crack is the sudden appearance of Momentum. And it is relevant not just because they symbolically castrated one of Fidesz’ most outlandish delusions of national grandeur in four weeks – but because of who they are.
2. The emergence of youth and expats as a political force
… with an actual intention to enter politics.
It is especially relevant since the opposition is in an appalling shape. Their fragmented leaders are either genuinely stupid – or actively planted by Orbán to act as Putin-stle court-opposition. Either way, they don’t cooperate and can’t stop bickering over minutiae of their irrelevant programs, or who gets to stand in the middle if they deign to stand on a stage together. Defeat of Orbán and his authoritarian nation can simply not be expected from them. Voters are becoming become undecided, even actively anti-Fidesz, but would never vote for these jokers. Of if they did, they would have to choose.
Apathy is also tangible in the country. The mood explains why popular protests are getting rare. Partly due to history. But also because Orbán made a point of demonstrating that protesting never makes a difference. No matter how much you protest, you don’t even get a single MP to disrupt his lunch and talk to the protesters.
But there is a resource that has been untapped so far: the youth and the expats. Youth don’t know that breaking apathy is impossible – so they do it. And expats are not existentially crushed by (and dependent on) the sneaking authoritarianism, they still get angry, and their backbones are still intact. And the two had converged in a magnificent four weeks and a surprise triumph against the Olympic bid that even defeated Orbán.
It is unlikely that Momentum would become a challenger to Orbán by 2018. But it is hope.
And remember, Momentum (or even the opposition) may weaken Orbán – but only Orbán can defeat himself. This retreat may turn out to be a turning point in his undisputable reign – for the better or for the worse. Because nothing is more dangerous than an autocrat who is challenged but not yet defeated.
For an autocrat, who had long silenced dissent in his own circles, nothing is more alarming than the notion that the majority is not behind him. At some point they all come to believe that they are genuinely loved – and get addicted to popularity.
3. Orbán’s fears of an opposition referendum
We closely follow referendum-related news, not because we are particularly fond of them, but because referendums are a fetish of PM Orbán. They have a special place in his heart ever since he delivered a major blow to his predecessor and populist-in-charge (then-PM Gyurcsány) with a referendum.
- In 2008, he won a referendum over a petty and symbolic issue: a one euro payment per doctor’s visit. Orbán managed to spin it as the Socialist Party’s evil plot to introduce capitalism in healthcare – and it worked. That triumph contributed to his winning in 2010.
- In 2016 he received a dictator-shaming 98% support for his windmill-quest against
refugeeterrorist quotas by the EU at a populist referendum. (The referendum was invalid on low turnout, but only because Orbán himself had increased the threshold to 50% to avert the opposition from ever winning against him.)
This is why referendum attempts by the opposition are crushed in their buds, even if it takes physical violence by football thugs (who just happen to gather around election committee building from the early hours on a weekday when an opposition politician can be expected to try and submit a non-friendly question for approval).
And this is why Momentum’s success to get even a question approved for collecting signatures is a huge feat. And the next four weeks were such a surprise – even to Orbán.
So what’s next?
Fidesz is mourning…
The country may avoid bankruptcy (for now), but Orbán’s cronies saw their dreams crushed. They are apparently mourning. It may just be a show for the benefit of their stoked, nationalist audience – but it may also be a genuine fondness for lavish public spending.
After the defeat they withdrew for a week to contemplate, then the Olympic bid was dropped. They are now pretending it was the idea of the mayor of Budapest – like he has the power – and the governing party, Fidesz had nothing to do with it. Orbán is talking about “crushed dreams”, his media about treason by the opposition, and Momentum is scrutinized for foreign agents and links to Soros.
Sometimes I find it hard to tell whether they actually have such strong emotions towards a misguided expression of national pride – or they just genuinely feel attached to public money. Hard to say. Orbán’s multi-talented daughter (who is also teaching a university course in English) wrote on Facebook:
„yeah. unfortunately. some young guys used to protest against the Olympic for make their name in politic and found a new party. they did not feel our nation strong and brave enough to make big think.”
–Comment deleted since – Source: 444.hu
…and contemplates a counter-strike
Meanwhile the government propaganda machine is desperately trying to find a hold on Momentum. They need to either crush them or ignore them, and I’m sure they will come up with something. The only reason they haven’t yet is that they genuinely didn’t expect the movement to win.
But Orbán already accused them to be like SZDSZ (the now-defunct liberal party), then that they want a coalition with the socialists – both synonyms of unmitigated evil in Orbán’s fan base. In the meantime everyone is struck by the resemblance of Momentum’s leader, András Fekete-Győr and young Orbán in 1989.
And apart from attacking Momentum and everyone in it (and possibly their relatives) I fully expect something hugely divisive, downright mean, and previously unimaginable to happen now.
Orbán needs to throw a communication flash bomb at the defeat – the only way he deals with defeats and scandals.
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Featured photo: Index.hu
* People tend to add “but the internet tax” to my list of cracks – but I don’t count it because it was not yet a policy when it was sentenced to slow death by consultations. In 2015, in its frenzy to tax every living and moving thing, the Orbán-government announced an inane tax on the internet. For some reason that moved so many people in Hungary and abroad that the government retreated and let the issue silently die.