It may not be official yet, but Budapest’s bid for the 2024 Olympic Games is dead. It is only a question of time when the proposal will be formally withdrawn.
The resounding success of the Momentum Movement’s referendum drive is widely interpreted as the first sign of the awakening of a depressingly inactive and uncaring public. The time might be ripe for action if there is a political force that can take advantage of the mood of the country. According to the latest poll, of the 1.5 million undecided potential voters only 300,000 would like to perpetuate Viktor Orbán’s political stranglehold on the country. All in all, the number of people who are dissatisfied with the present government far surpasses the 2.2 million core Fidesz voters even without the 1.2 million undecided voters who, given a viable alternative, would be inclined to vote for an opposition force.
Fidesz politicians themselves indirectly admit that what happened was a political defeat. They talk disparagingly about Momentum’s leaders, who used Viktor Orbán’s Olympic “dream” as a vehicle to fulfill their political ambitions. These unpatriotic youngsters made a political issue out of a “national cause,” they argue. There was once absolute unity on the issue, but oppositional forces drove a wedge between people for political reasons. Or, at least this is the story Viktor Orbán wants Hungarians to believe.
This morning in his Friday interview Viktor Orbán expounded on the topic of the Olympic Games and hinted at the real problem with Budapest’s bid. The telling sentence was his very first on the subject: “Look, the referendum is a Hungarian affair but the Olympic Games must be won abroad in an international race in Switzerland, in Lausanne, before the International Olympic Committee.” Indeed, this is the case. Hungary was supposed to convince 88 men and women who determine the venue of the 2024 Olympic Games, and the likelihood of persuading the majority in Hungary’s favor was slim. Perhaps even impossible. That is the truth which most likely Viktor Orbán has known for some time. According to rumor, he learned the sad truth of Hungary’s poor chances in Rio de Janiero. The referendum drive therefore came in handy. He can withdraw from the competition and blame the opposition for it.
In fact, this is exactly what he decided to do after a few days of hesitation. While Orbán was trying to figure out a good story, Fidesz politicians gave interviews with wildly disparate messages, as usually happens when an autocrat rules a country. His minions, lacking instructions, are completely lost. Now that they have the word from above, the parrot commando can begin to work in earnest.
The story is as follows. Cities which in the past held referendums, even if these referendums were successful, were never awarded the privilege of holding an Olympics. Thus, with this referendum drive Hungary’s chances have become practically nil. It is therefore useless to hold the referendum because the whole enterprise has become hopeless. In fact, so hopeless that “it is questionable whether we would be able to garner even one vote.” This would be exceedingly shameful. “One can lose but one shouldn’t be beaten to smithereens.” According to Orbán, “we shouldn’t expose the country to such shame because we deserve better.” Hungary’s proposal was excellent, “we were honest, we really wanted to do it, and after all that, the world downgrades us to zero or just one or two votes while the other two [contenders] receive the trust of the members of the International Olympic Committee. This would be a humiliating defeat.” What these young people did was “a murder of a dream.”
To be the murderers of Viktor Orbán’s dream is no small feat, so from here on we can be certain that Orbán’s propaganda machine will be hard at work trying to discredit the organizers of the referendum drive. In fact, the character assassination has already begun. Orbán compared the group to SZDSZ, and we know what that means for Hungary’s illiberal leader. They are the greatest enemies of everything Orbán has been fighting for. He already sees a repeat scenario of what happened in 1994 when the leadership of the liberal SZDSZ, despite the fact that the socialists won an absolute majority in the national election, decided to join them in a coalition government. Orbán is certain that this young crew, which at the moment claims that their future party will face the electorate alone, will, after all, make peace with MSZP. “We must be ready for that scenario.” I’m sure he has already made plans.
According to those who are in the know, Orbán’s “whole story is nothing but a lie.” Hungary’s chances had been slim from day one. Initially commentators couldn’t understand how Momentum got permission to hold a referendum drive when earlier attempts had failed. I think it is pretty clear why Momentum’s request for a referendum was approved: it gave Orbán a way out. Some people thought that perhaps the approval had been simply an oversight on the part of the government; others argued that Fidesz thought the drive would either never get off the ground or would fail spectacularly. I think today we can safely say that Viktor Orbán is begrudgingly grateful to Momentum for allowing him to avoid a major embarrassment at the hands of the IOC.
As for Orbán’s decision to withdraw the bid, anti-Orbán forces, including the leadership of Momentum, consider it a sign of cowardliness. In general, large segments of the Hungarian public consider Orbán to be a coward, and not without reason. For instance, the last time he agreed to a political debate with his opponent was in 2006, when he cut a pitiful figure in his debate with Ferenc Gyurcsány. That was a lesson he never forgot. And his reticence is not limited to political debates. He consistently refuses to answer questions from reporters and rejects all requests for interviews from any organ that is not part of the government media empire.
It seems that portraying Orbán as a coward is not limited to his antagonists. Just yesterday a forceful article appeared in the right-wing Mandiner accusing Orbán of being afraid to discuss the pros and cons of holding the Olympics in Budapest and refusing to ask the people their opinion on the matter. Even his supporters are coming to the conclusion that their idol’s brave countenance is but a mask. Inside there is a quavering little fellow.