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Hungary Gaining Momentum

Could we be seeing, finally, the dawn of a viable alternative to one-party rule? by Martin Ehl 24 February 2017

“Politics can be different.” A while ago, that was the slogan of Lehet Mas – a newly created, Hungarian liberal-green opposition party that even gained some seats in parliament. But internal struggles and the ruling party’s tactics (accusations of foreign funding, possible tax evasion, etc.) banished this promising project to the fringes of the political spectrum.


Now there is a new hope for those looking for a viable alternative unconnected to the old political class in Hungary, unaffiliated either with the left or the right, and most importantly, untainted by corruption allegations. This NGO/political party is called the Momentum Movement, and it has recently grabbed headlines after a professionally managed petition campaign against the Hungarian bid to organize the summer Olympic Games in 2024. The petition drive collected 266,000 signatures.


This bid is one of the megalomaniac projects of Viktor Orban’s government, and of his Fidesz party. The location of the games will be decided this autumn in Peru. Hamburg and Rome have already withdrawn their candidacies as a result of opposition from locals, and Budapest’s remaining rivals had been Los Angeles and Paris. That is, until Wednesday, when the government announced that it would also withdraw its bid, citing a lack of unity, and directly blaming opposition parties, who supposedly backtracked on earlier commitments to support the idea.


This is a rare public relations disaster for Fidesz, as the governing party clearly saw the Olympic bid as a huge propaganda opportunity ahead of the spring 2018 parliamentary elections.


“Advertisements and banners can be found all around the city, and all over the internet,” said Miklos Hajnal, one of the founding members of the Movement Momentum, days before the government cancelled the bid. “They've spent millions of dollars on campaigning already. It’s a very simplistic ‘We can do it’ type of propaganda that features several Hungarian gold medalists.”


The bid also served as a prime chance for Momentum to join the political scene ahead of elections, and – although ignored by the state/public, Fidezs-monopolized media – the group has gained a certain visibility, making headlines in some local and international media. Now Momentum can take at least some of the credit for the government’s decision, since the opinion of many people (and some opposition parties) really did shift toward the “No” camp.


“In all public appearances, we’ve been very clear right from the start: this is not a single-issue movement,” says Hajnal. We’re here to bring more activism into politics, to solve pressing local issues, and to change our corrupted political culture.” He makes his message clear: “Both logistically and policy-wise, we are preparing for the 2018 elections.”


The Hungarian opposition is quite a crowded place where different groups, some of them former members of the socialist-liberal coalition that ruled in the 1990s, compete for the favor of the roughly 50 percent of the electorate who dislike Fidesz. Nevertheless, the nationalistic and xenophobic Jobbik remains the second biggest force on the political scene, and one that Orban and his party take as the most serious threat to their electoral victory.


But Momentum seems well-prepared. But as both left- and right- wing commentators in Hungarian media recently pointed out, the young party should, as soon as possible, come up with a credible program to become a serious player. And they must buckle up for an inevitable attack from Fidesz.


Andras Keszthely from the left-liberal Magyar Narancs magazine thinks that because of its organization, activism, and lack of links to the past, a potential Momentum party has a good chance to develop into a sizeable political competitor. In order to achieve that, it must present a program addressing burning issues, such as healthcare or education.


Such optimism could seem like wishful thinking, but on the other hand one can hope that even after almost eight years of increasingly strong one-party rule, there is someone in Hungary who seriously thinks about open political competition – and is able to turn against the governing party its own propaganda strategies, something that the Olympic bid certainly was.


The poor state of democracy in Hungary seems a forgotten topic among the backsliding in Poland, the complications of Britain leaving the EU, and the coming French election – among a host of problems that Europe now faces.


Therefore the Hungarians, once again, have to decide for themselves about their future and build their own alternatives to the status quo. That is, certainly, given the present gloomy European circumstances, encouraging.

Martin Ehl 
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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