Even as we all complain about the political lethargy of Hungarians, a new political group has appeared on the scene. These self-assured young people in their late twenties and early thirties emerged from seemingly nowhere. But they handle their new roles in front of the cameras with poise and, unlike some earlier groups, they seem to have well-defined ideas about what they want. Although their immediate goal is to hold a referendum in Budapest to avert Orbán’s folly of hosting the 2024 Olympics in the capital, they are braced for an intensive political role. They call their movement Momentum.
Skeptics would say that Momentum’s efforts to defeat Hungary’s Olympics bid will be in vain. They must collect 130,000 signatures in 30 days in the dead of winter. And even if they get the necessary signatures, the prospect of a valid referendum is slim. Not even Fidesz’s outsize spending was enough to achieve that.
Momentum’s leaders seem to be realistic in their expectations: they will be satisfied even if all they achieve is getting the necessary number of signatures. After all, this would be a first among numerous failed attempts in the past. As for the likelihood of their ultimate success, the population of Budapest is divided on the issue of the Olympics. While about half of the population of Budapest opposes the games for economic reasons, the other half supports them either because of national pride or because they consider the infrastructure investment beneficial for their city.
If the only aim of the leaders of Momentum were to oppose holding the Olympics in Budapest, they wouldn’t have had such an enthusiastic reception in democratic circles. What Momentum offers is something new. The group unequivocally defines itself as a political organization. Why is that so significant? Because until now, newly emerged and promising civic groups refused any cooperation with political parties or declared themselves to be purely “professional” organizations. The leaders of these organizations denied any political motives, with the inevitable result that they became isolated and eventually disappeared. When, for instance, the teachers’ demonstration managed to get 40,000 people out in the pouring rain, it was clear that most of the people in the crowd were there because of their opposition to the government that was responsible for the ruined educational system. The teacher’s movement failed because it was unwilling “to get involved in politics.” Eventually, they noticed their mistake, but by that time it was too late.
What do we know about the Momentum group? I encountered two of the leaders in interview situations on ATV and HírTV, and I must admit that I was impressed. The chairman of the group, András Fekete-Győr (27), is a lawyer who works in an international law office in Budapest but earlier worked in the European Parliament and the Bundestag. The other person I watched was Anna Orosz (27), who studied economics in Budapest and Berlin with work experience in both cities. I haven’t seen a third member of the team, Miklós Hajnal, but I read a long interview with him. He is just finishing his last year as a student of philosophy, political science and economics in Oxford. According to him, about one-fifth of the membership either studied or lived abroad at one time or another and are eager “to bring home the best practices” they encountered abroad.
Momentum has had a longer history than I initially realized. At the beginning of 2015 nine young people established Momentum because “they were convinced that a purely civic initiative is not enough to achieve any systemic change. Therefore, they were thinking in terms of a political community which in the long run can offer itself as a replacement for the current political elite.” Their first move was to organize a get-together in a summer camp, attended by 200 people, somewhat similarly to what Fidesz did in 1985, in order to exchange ideas and hammer out a program. By the spring of 2016 the membership was large enough to establish an association with several working groups. What brought them together was a common feeling of “political orphanhood,” Miklós Hajnal told mandiner.hu.
I assume that if this group survives, we will know more about their political ideas. What I have learned so far is that although they don’t want to join any existing party, they are ready to work with all of them. They are not interested in ideology, and therefore they find labels like “left” and “right” obsolete. They find Viktor Orbán’s “work-based society” a dead end. They wouldn’t participate in primaries, which they consider “unfortunate and misleading.” Otherwise, their social policy strikes me as liberal. Anna Orosz’s historical ideal is Árpád Göncz, while András Fekete-Győr talked about St. Stephen and István Széchenyi. Judging from these references, both liberal and conservative strands are present in Momentum.
A right-wing blogger called the leadership of Momentum nothing more than a revival of the liberal SZDSZ’s youth organization. He reacted to the word “liberal” with the usual intense hatred. He described them as irrepressible and destructive people who keep returning in different guises. Among the leadership he called attention to András Radnóti, Momentum’s coordinator for foreign relations. He is the son of Sándor Radnóti, who indeed was very active in SZDSZ in the 1980s.
Former Prime Minister József Antall’s son Péter, who is heading the government-financed József Antall Center of Knowledge (Antall József Tudásközpont), wrote on Facebook that any associate of the foundation who expresses public support for Momentum’s anti-Olympics effort will lose his job. Those “who want to be independent politically” can pack. This is the son of the first democratically elected Hungarian prime minister after the regime change.
Magyar Idők also noted Momentum’s “attack on the Olympics,” which “is political in nature.” The current Hungarian government uses the words “politics” and “political” as practical equivalents of “treachery” and “treasonous.” One of the officials responsible for the preparation of the Olympics announced that “every time politics has gotten involved in sports, the sports have suffered.” This assertion is especially amusing considering that sports are such an important part of Viktor Orbán’s political arsenal.
I’m really curious what the reactions of other opposition parties will be to Momentum. LMP, Párbeszéd, Együtt, and the Two-Tailed Dog Party have already promised to help in gathering signatures. DK’s leadership hasn’t made any decision yet, but since DK also belongs to the anti-Olympics camp, I’m pretty sure that the decision will be favorable. MSZP, as usual, is divided on the issue of the Olympics, but MSZP’s spokesman promised an answer sometime next week.
As I said earlier, these young people are very self-assured and keep repeating that they are well prepared to enter the political struggle. Anna Orosz said in one of her interviews that “we would like to spread our ideas in ever larger circles and transplant them into reality.” The reporter’s reaction was that “in the next 30 days they will certainly meet reality” on the streets of Budapest. It will be an eye-opener and a challenge, I’m sure.