Budapest 2024 Referendum Likely After Collection of 266,151 Signatures

Budapest’s bid to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2024 is facing a major hurdle ahead after Friday the political party Momentum Mozgalom announced that its NOlimpia campaign has collected 266,151 signatures over thirty days on a referendum petition.

The NOlimpia campaign collects over 266 thousand signatures against Budapest 2024 Olympic bid (NOlimpia Facebook Photo)
The NOlimpia campaign collects over 266 thousand signatures against Budapest 2024 Olympic bid (NOlimpia Facebook Photo)

The collection of nearly double the required 138 thousand signatures, a number representing 10 per cent of eligible voters in Budapest, will now be counted an verified by the election committee before forcing a vote.  Organizers were hoping to exceed their goal by “tens-of-thousands” as an assurance against invalid signatures.

Local reports suggest that government officials will need up to 45 days to examine and validate the signatures, and eliminate any from residents outside the city and possible duplicates.  But results could be announced much sooner.  At a press conference Friday, NOlimpia leaders including advocate Andras Fekete-Gyor revealed stacked piles of petition forms wrapped in branded “Momentum” purple paper.

The results will be delivered to the Mayor by the election committee, but it may have to withstand an appeal over the validity of count, a process that could last days.  Upon receiving the results, the Mayor will have 30 days to order a referendum – that could occur some time in May when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Evaluation Commission is due to visit the city for a three-day inspection starting May 10.

IOC will conduct it’s own public opinion poll in the city and across Hungary to gauge support, and will publish the results in a report due in July.

Once a referendum is ordered, the City Assembly is expected to choose a date that falls within 50 to 70 days.  But to further mire an expedited vote, the inability to promptly convene the Assembly with a valid quorum could create further delays.  All factors considered, a referendum, if approved, could be held anytime between May and September – possibly slipping into October.

The IOC will consider Budapest among Los Angeles and Paris when it elects its preferred host city September 13 in Lima, Peru.  Should the referendum not be settled at that date it is unlikely the IOC members would select a city that could later be rejected locally.  An earlier referendum, if lost, would knock the Hungarian capital from the race.  But if won – the bid would receive a major boost in the eyes of the IOC.

“If there is indeed a referendum, or if it turns out that a sufficient number of Budapest citizens have signed that they want a referendum, then I personally … will seriously consider whether we should withdraw the bid,” Budapest Mayor Istvan Tarlos said Friday at a news conference.

But a spokesperson for NOlimpia told “it would be cowardly by Mr. Orban and Mr. Tarlos to withdraw the bid without asking the people: they would betray even those who support the Olympic Games.”

“They should not step back from a referendum, but take the courage to ask the people.”

The IOC has witnessed a string of domestic bid-killing referendums over the past thirteen years, many in European cities and most recently in Hamburg during a bid for these same 2024 Games.  The last mid-campaign referendum to end in favour of the bid occurred in 2003 in Vancouver when the city voted to support the 2010 Winter Games bid.  Vancouver was later awarded those Games.

Proposed Budapest 2024 Olympic Stadium (Budapest 2024 depiction)
Proposed Budapest 2024 Olympic Stadium (Budapest 2024 depiction)

The referendum push has been considered a battle that has more to do with rival politics than Olympic Sport.  The bid is strongly supported by right-wing President Viktor Orbán, and the anti-bid movement is led by the upstart left-wing Momentum Mozgaolom youth organization that is considering candidacies at upcoming elections.  Recent polls have suggested that respondents’ political leanings were highly correlated to their level of support for the Olympic bid.

A Zavecz Research institute poll published last week in Hungary revealed almost 52 per cent of Budapest citizens would vote against the Olympic bid, up from 32 per cent in September.  In August, Hungary finished 12th in the medal table, with eight golds, at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

In December, a bid commissioned poll said 55 per cent of citizens supported the Games.

President Orbán has refused to discuss the possible referendum until the signature campaign ends, but he did say he would accept any decision made by the public.

A NOlimpia spokesperson said “we are thankful for all the support we received in the past 30 days: to the more than 1,600 activists who filled our stands in the freezing cold, to thousands of people who collected signatures for us independently, and to the thousands of people who donated collectively more than $50,000 for the cause.”

Opponents of the bid say it’s the wrong time to be bidding for the Olympics and funds should instead be spent on essential services such as healthcare, education and transportation.  They point to overblown budgets that have burdened previous host cities as evidence for their concerns.

But NOlimpia has challenged Budapest 2024 organizers.

A statement said “most of us experience the day-to-day reality of the critical state our public services are in, and thus, despite the government propaganda’s best efforts, cannot be blinded by obscure promises.”

“Nonetheless, we are greatly disappointed by the lack of engagement on the side supporting the bid: given the large amount of money that has already been pumped into their campaign, we would have expected them to act more responsibly and defend the cause they seemingly stand for.

“We hope that the amount of signatures we’ve collected will serve as a wake-up call for them. To make the right decision at a referendum, voters deserve to hear a fair share of arguments from both sides.”

During the referendum signature collection period, the Budapest bid committee opted to delay the beginning of its international campaign that the IOC said could begin as early as February 3 – the submission deadline for the final set of bid documents.  On that day both Paris and Los Angeles held launch events and released their bid documents to the public.

No referendums are required in Los Angeles and Paris, both two-time Olympic hosts.  A recent poll showed Los Angeles enjoyed almost 88 per cent support.

A senior producer and award-winning journalist covering Olympic bid business as founder of as well as providing freelance support for print and Web publications around the world. Robert Livingstone is a member of the Olympic Journalists Association and the International Society of Olympic Historians.

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