I think it’s time to return to Momentum, a new political formation that became an overnight sensation after their activists, with some help from left-liberal parties, collected 260,000 signatures in the dead of winter in support of a referendum about holding the Olympic Games in Budapest in 2024. The overwhelming support for the initiative forced the Orbán government to retreat and abandon one of Viktor Orbán’s most cherished dreams.
The last time I wrote about Momentum was in March, after a number of disastrous interviews that András Fekete-Győr, the leader of the group, gave to ATV and HírTV. I titled that post “What’s behind Momentum? Banal clichés.” I’m afraid nothing has happened since to make me change my mind. But, if we can believe Republikon Intézet’s telephone poll, Momentum is so popular in Budapest that 9% of active voters would vote for it at the next election. Momentum’s standing nationwide, as measured by several polling companies, is 2%.
Many commentators compare Momentum to the youthful Fidesz in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was also a generational party that came from practically nowhere. A few months later it won enough votes to be represented in parliament. In July 1989 Fidesz organized a three-four-day gathering that included political discussions. It was held in Bálványosfűrdő/Băile Bálványos, which over the years has become a gathering place for Hungarians, mostly from Romania, to listen to the political messages of Viktor Orbán. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the leadership of Momentum decided to organize a three-day gathering called “Opening Festival” in Bodajk, a town of 4,000 inhabitants in Fejér County. During the day they held panel discussions and at night it was all fun and games. Lots of music and dancing. The event, as we learned later, cost quite a bit of money, but the business-minded Momentum leadership believed that it was a good investment, even in financial terms. By all accounts relatively few people attended. According to the journalist from Index, on the first day there were no more than 200-300 people.
In March, when I looked at Momentum’s so-called program, it was practically nonexistent. Unfortunately, the situation hasn’t changed since. They promise a party program for October 15. Otherwise, Momentum’s strongest message is that it rejects not only the last seven years of Fidesz rule but everything that has happened in Hungary since 1989. As for the general political orientation of the party, Fekete-Győr likened Momentum to Emmanuel Macron’s “En Marche!” The general impression is that Momentum is neither on the right nor on the left, perhaps because so far it seems devoid of ideas.
It is almost impossible to figure out what Momentum actually wants. They made only a few concrete political announcements, the most important of which was that in no way would they consider cooperation with any other party unless “there is a danger of a two-thirds Fidesz majority,” as Fekete-Győr put it. This makes no sense to me. By the time it seems likely that Fidesz’s strength would result in a two-thirds majority, no cooperation among opposition parties could do anything to change the situation.
Momentum seems not to know whether it is a serious political party or a charitable organization. In the midst of talking about matters like Hungary’s place in the European Union and the benefits of the Eurozone, Fekete-Győr could tell his audience about a project of theirs to supply soap and towels to schools and hospitals where they are currently in short supply.
Árpád W. Tóta of HVG, whom I consider one of the most astute observers of the current Hungarian political scene, asked the leaders of Momentum some probing questions. What Tóta learned from Fekete-Győr was that the political profile of Momentum, which today is fuzzy, will be shaped by whatever the people want. Of course, this is a very dangerous populist notion which can lead a party to adopt even extremist views. This is exactly what happened in Fidesz’s case when Viktor Orbán discovered what people wanted to hear. I don’t think the leaders of Momentum ever thought through the dangers of such a populist approach to politics. I’m sorry that the video has no subtitles, but those who understand the language should definitely spend 10 minutes on Tóta’s conversations with the leaders of Momentum. It is worth it.
The “Opening Festival” was lavish, and questions were raised where the money came from to fund the event. Tóta himself in that interview asked Fekete-Győr about the cost, but the Momentum leader feigned ignorance of the amount. He maintained, however, that the only money they have comes from membership dues. Another student leader, Miklós Hajnal, on ATV claimed that the cost of the festival was a “trade secret.” Eventually Momentum announced the real cost. The party spent 23 million forints (about $89,000); the income received from the participants was only 11 million. Apparently, currently Momentum has 1,100 card-carrying party members who pay 1,000 forints a month as a membership fee.
The less than transparent finances of Momentum have aroused the interest of the media. A few days ago Heti Válasz, a right-of-center weekly, discovered that at least two well-known businessmen have helped the party financially. One is Gábor Bojár of Graphisoft, a software company, and the founder of the Aquincum Institute of Technology, who told the paper that he gave them one million forints. The other is György Raskó, MDF’s undersecretary of agriculture in the Antall government, who is now a successful agro businessman. The amount Raskó gave to Momentum is unknown, but there were strings attached to the gift. He wanted the party to include an education program that would be similar to the successful Finnish model. Apparently, he also wanted to receive assurances that Momentum would not cooperate on any level with MSZP and the Demokratikus Koalíció. In addition, Raskó also warned that he doesn’t want Momentum to become a “Budapest downtown liberal intellectual” party.
Not surprisingly the government media attacked both Momentum and its wealthy supporters. Magyar Idők hypocritically expressed its concern over “the undue influence of entrepreneurs over party politics” and declared that Momentum is not an independent party but an instrument in the hands of men with definite political goals. But left-liberal publications aren’t exactly thrilled either. Pesti Bulvár, a relatively new internet news site, repeated the general dissatisfaction on the left with Momentum’s refusal to cooperate with anyone, which further weakens the anti-Orbán forces. Garai, the author of the article, titled “A party is for sale,” estimates that Momentum has already spent 100-150 million forints. He charges that the leaders of Momentum, by accepting Raskó’s demands, admitted that they don’t really want regime change because they ought to know that small parties running alone can lead only to Fidesz victory. Moreover, given Raskó’s political views, he says, Momentum is moving over to the right.
I have had heard interviews with both Bojár and Raskó and found most of what they had to say eminently reasonable. Raskó is normally asked to comment on matters related to agriculture, and he shows great knowledge of the subject. However, I must admit that his categorical refusal to make common cause with other anti-Orbán forces shows a shortsighted and rigidly ideological posture that is not in the interest of the country.
We don’t know how long Raskó has been supporting Momentum financially, but my feeling is that it has been from the very beginning. We know that he gave these young people money at the time of their signature drive for a referendum on the Olympic Games. Moreover, Raskó’s son is a member of Momentum. As for the extent to which Raskó has been influencing these young people’s ideas, that remains an open question. We know, for example, that Raskó is a believer in the establishment of large agro businesses instead of small family farms and that Momentum also supports this idea.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with getting advice from experts. In the case of Momentum, when I think back, I was struck how often András Fekete-Győr boasted about unnamed, very important advisers who worked with them. All political parties need experts in a range of fields, but in this case we have a bunch of young people without any political experience who may not know what to do with the advice they receive. And, of course, I am disheartened by Raskó’s advice of noncooperation. It is the worst advice he could have given the leaders of Momentum.
Finally, Edina Pottyondy, a member of Momentum’s board of governors, quit her post two days ago. She remains a member of the party and will be one of the organizers of the party’s efforts to recruit followers in the countryside, said the spokesman for the party. I cannot escape the feeling that the less than transparent handling of the party’s finances might have had something to do with her departure. In any case, whatever has transpired since July 22, the first day of the “Opening Festival,” has done a lot of damage to Momentum. The reputation of the seemingly innocent, young, bright boys and girls has suffered a serious blow.