You can submit your signature at several busy points around the capital. The brand-new Momentum Movement is collecting names so as to initiate a referendum about the bid to hold the 2024 Olympics in Budapest. Miklós Hajnal, one of Momentum’s founders, tells here about their goals, how they are handling the attacks by the state-owned media and under what circumstances would they welcome the Olympics.
You need 138,000 valid signatures …
The last official number I heard was 35,000 … The momentum of the first days is unbroken. People are still standing in lines to sign. If this continues with the same momentum, it’s absolutely sure we will reach the target. Of course, we know that there were a number of people who came early to make sure they sign, and we thought that later on the interest will decrease a bit. Realistic or not, some people were a little afraid to put down all their data. However, this is becoming less of an issue. Now we see that more and more people understand that they have nothing to fear if they do sign.
Were there any specific cases when someone did not dare to support your cause?
Yes. We rather heard that from stories told by people we know. People who do come to the stands are there to sign, to ask questions or to have a discussion, but we experience that rather seldom. There were no more than one or two conflicts up until now. We also succeeded to ease the fear of people from signing, since they can see that finally there is an overall social initiative being started here.
In the past years there were several good civil initiatives that failed? Why do you think you can be successful?
This is a good question indeed. But do we really have to be so different or so unique? Or should it be much more natural that anyone should be able to initiate a referendum? In an ideal society it should not be so terribly exciting or such a big challenge, it should be an easily achievable task. Finally, it should be possible for every citizen to participate in the decision procedure, even when someone is not a politician or a representative. We are convinced that you are able to deal with politics not only at the Parliament. I hope that we will be successful, since many people believe the same and they simply would like to participate. I think that in the past few years many people felt like their right of free speech was lost. If I really have to name something special that we have done, which makes us better than the others, it is that we have done more than just saying no to the Olympics in our program or organising a press conference. You are welcome to do that but that will not attract the attention of the average citizen. You can join us by making a very little effort; you can already become part of the action with a simple signature. This is a basic form of activism and we invite people to practise this again. Our society urgently needs a healthy form of everyday activism.
You are saying that, theoretically, a referendum should be fairly easy to accomplish. Now, this was not the case at all in Hungary in the past few years. Just think about the Sunday shopping controversy with the appearance of the supposed football hooligans. How did you succeed to begin the collection of signatures?
Questions about the Olympic application have been handed in to the National Election Office (NVI) countless times already. For example there was the question whether the application should be handed in at all. This was turned down by the NVI, since the application process was already going on by that time. Katalin Erdélyi, a journalist at the investigative blog Átlátszó, handed in questions to NVI regularly and she was the one who finally managed to formulate a question that was approved. However, she did not manage to pick up the sheets for the signatures within the 30-day deadline [Erdélyi blamed this on NVI for not notifying her properly]. That was the point when we thought we had a chance. If the question had been approved once, it would surely be approved another time.
Aren’t you afraid there will be even more obstacles?
There will be several more obstacles on the way and we can never be sure that – just because nobody managed to trip us up so far – this won’t be the case in future either. For example it could happen that during the examination of the signatures the NVI will start looking for absurd reasons for rejecting them, such as the signature sticking out of the box or an accent is indented in the wrong direction. There are numerous possibilities how all this can still go wrong. [If the referendum goes ahead] of course the government is able to move much more financial resources and they are able to fill the city with their pro-Olympics posters just before the vote. However, we are finishing the Budapest campaign whatever happens. Opinion surveys prove that support for the Olympics is much higher in the countryside than in Budapest. So if the government wants to succeed for sure, they could order a national referendum. In general, we already think it’s a success that we have forced the government to take a certain kind of action. They have to react to our campaign and it has been a long time since we last experienced that.
The Two-tailed Dog Party (MKKP) is supporting your initiative with a poster campaign. Did you ask them to do that?
We contacted the MKKP, that much is true. Two of our leaders went to an MKKP meeting to see to what extent they supported our goal. We have already heard from many of our activists that MKKP activists are helping them. This is true for the activists of other parties too, but we are not really in contact with any of the party managements. Even with [MKKP president] Gergely Kovács it was only a few phone calls. Actually, we are not co-ordinating who is collecting signatures when and where. This is all done by our activists on their own.
Why have the established parties failed to do what you are now seemingly easily managing to achieve?
You would have to ask them. What I miss about the established parties is that they hardly ever really interact with people any more. They are so professional that they limit their communication to press conferences. We are not interesting when we organise a press conference or send a postal communication about the topic. We are interesting because we are doing something that makes people feel they are able to do something. I think that the established parties can hardly intermediate the feeling of participation to their followers and this is why many of their followers come to join us too. We are not the first group at all that is raising its voice against the Olympic bid but we are the first who are actually doing something against it.
A possible referendum could take place in summer but the International Olympic Committee will decide in September. Isn’t that very close?
Yes, but the interesting thing is that the representative from the IOC will come to Budapest on 10 and 11 May, and will research opinion throughout the country. So it’s extremely important to keep the topic in the daily discussions, since history has proved that a country where the support of the population was not sufficient has never received the right to organise the Games yet. Last but not least our aim is not only not to host the Olympics but also to use the freed financial resources in a more sensible way. Of course it would be the best if we could stop the Olympics via a valid referendum, which would judge our initiative successful and democratically legitimate. However, it would also be a partial success if we could influence public opinion in such a way that we would be out of the race. It’s still unclear when exactly the referendum will happen. There are certain legal conditions but we think that by summer it would be possible to get there. Of course, the government will choose a timing that would be the least convenient for us, for example when many people are at festivals or on holiday. However, this is a challenge that we can prepare for and in the worst case we will be in our swimming pants at the shores of Lake Balaton advocating for our referendum. We don’t have a strategy yet nor marketing. Minister Overseeing the Prime Minister’s Office János Lázár said “We will be dealing with the question once it looks like the 138,000 signatures are collected”. We are thinking the same.
So you see no chance at all for the Olympic Games to be organised in Hungary?
I think that there are three conditions that need to be fulfilled. First – and maybe this is the most important point – this sort of large project needs to be trusted by the people. Many people are afraid that the cost would be immeasurable. The necessary trust can be gained if the government is spending in a transparent way and keeping a stable budget already when we are talking about smaller investments. The swimming world championship [Fina 2017] is a deterring example – the costs have got out of hand there. With an even larger project, the danger is even higher. If something would change in this regard that would be an important step in the right direction.
The second question is whether the country is prepared in economic and infrastructural terms for hosting such a large event. Budapest, in comparison with the other applicants, is a relatively small city with its two million inhabitants, but it’s not without a precedent that such a city was selected as a host. However, the only example in recent years is Athens , and there we clearly saw that it was simply not prepared to host so many people. The problem was not only that they built stadiums but rather that certain infrastructural expansions, such as the airport, were simply too much for Athens to handle. The urban development was handled in a completely wrong way. In Budapest we can see a similar case. Even if the urban development and urban planning would be going on in a little bit slower but more transparent way, it would improve the situation a lot. If all the reconstruction doesn’t have to happen at the same time, the chances for the costs to explode are smaller, simply because it would be possible to control everything better. We should advance step by step, and instead of building new railways, for example, we should renovate the existing ones first.
The third important point, which is not related to Hungary, is that there are some reservations in connection to the IOC as well. Why is it in their interest for example that during the application the applicants are competing with each other? The only profitable Olympics ever was organised in Los Angeles , because there was no other applicant and thus LA was able to dictate the conditions. When there is a competition between the applicants then all of them are trying to beat each other just like at an auction and that brings along the explosion of costs. If there was a reasonable process, just like with regular tenders, it would help us to be able to participate. In addition, the financial responsibilities have to be clarified. At the moment IOC brings in sponsors and the ticket selling is more or less guaranteed as well. However, the case of unexpectedly rocketing costs is not covered from the side of the IOC. It is expected that the relevant country takes care of the Olympics at any price, no matter how high. This means that the state is issuing a blank cheque by its taxpayers. I think it frustrates many citizens that we simply do not know how much all this would cost us at the end. If we knew that it’s X amount, we could decide in a responsible way if this is worth for us or not. But it’s not possible to make a responsible decision just out of the blue like that.
These are the main risk factors in my opinion. If these could be controlled in a rational way it would be possible to organise the Olympics in Hungary. However, I do not see that this will be the case in the coming eight years. We do not have any influence on IOC but if we could at least control the domestic factors it would be sufficient. Unfortunately we do not see any efforts to move in this direction.
The pro-government media have started to deal with your movement. You have even appeared on the front page of the government newspaper Magyar Idők. The next step could be to attack the prominent faces in your movement. What do you think about that?
We knew what was coming to us and we were ready. This instrument is used so frequently by the government that it would have surprised us if this time they didn’t. It’s not really disturbing for us. This is only an attempt by the government to call attention away from the real issue. If we were really sensitive boys and girls we would probably be hurt and we would try to prosecute such articles in a legal way, but we simply don’t want to waste time on that. What is important for us now is that the necessary number of signatures is collected. It’s also very interesting that such negative headlines about us can only be seen in illusionary media such as the Habony newspapers. If any of the serious media that uses reliable sources would publish anything similar about us, we would be dealing with the case of course, but for now we think that it’s simply unnecessary to deal with such groundless accusations.
What kind of accusations have been made against you?
My favourite one was this headline from Echo TV: “Momentum Movement is directed from the holiday paradise in Southern Spain!” But we are also called “Soros soldiers” and “pseudo civilians financed by the left wing”. This is not journalism.
So how are you financed in fact?
So far primarily through membership fees but we have received donations as well. The chairs at the office for example are from Éva Haris, who is connected with MSZP. We have received 16 chairs and eight tables in total – we have never kept that a secret. In addition to that we are getting a lot of small donations and donations in kind. However, this is nothing compared to what needs to be spent for the actual campaign. We are getting donations from people with whom we have never had anything in common, simply because they are willing to support our initiative. We are getting donations from HUF 500 to even HUF 200,000 and that allows us to keep the campaign running. One thing is sure: the resources are not yet exhausted. We are going to continue our crowdfunding financing too, and besides that MKKP made a call for donations for a poster campaign and within three hours we collected HUF 5,000,000. So we experience that people are absolutely ready to finance our activism.
The Momentum Movement is in the process of becoming a party. Would you like to run for election in 2018?
With no one; just us as a party. We would like to get into Parliament but not because we believe that you can only do politics there. Most likely we will be performing even more actions until then and hopefully also after that. I don’t think that this part of our activity will ever be finished. For the moment we are concentrated on Budapest of course, but we would like to move into the rural regions too. We are getting feedback from friends, acquaintances and even strangers who are asking when we will finally be active in their region too. We are planning to do that but due to the Olympics initiative our resources are limited at the moment. Even in a small town like Kazincbarcika, which is not going to organise any Olympic Games, the locals have questions and want to be able to decide.
Again, how can you avoid the fate of other movements that have disappeared without a trace, such as 4K?
I don’t know how badly we really need to be in a co-operation, since after all there are four million voters who do not vote at all. These people feel they do not have a right to have their say anymore and their voice is not heard. As we are already welcoming supporters of other parties as our activists, we hope that we will be able to present ourselves as the more attractive alternative at the elections as well. Our main goal, however, is steering the interest of society more into the direction of politics and giving back their hope that it could be done in another way.