Momentum Movement: Is there a bright future for the new Hungarian youth party?

Teaser Image Caption
The sign says: No to the olympic games, yes to our future! Referendum on the olympics 2017

A new opposition party established in Hungary: Momentum Movement, a youth party formed by mostly 25-to-35-year-old university graduates. Is it merely a moment or the inception of a long-lasting political force in Hungary?

Following an auspicious start – initiating a referendum on hosting the 2024 Olympic Games in Budapest and collecting more than 266,000 signatures – Momentum Movement has become a favourite among Hungary’s remaining independent media. But is this enough to propel them into the National Assembly in the 2018 elections?

Despite its relatively high five-percent parliamentary threshold, Hungary is gradually becoming a world leader with respect to the number of left-liberal parties in its political landscape. No fewer than six new opposition parties were established in March 2017 alone – all with the aim of overthrowing Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian regime.

Most of these new parties will remain insignificant of course, but a possible exception is Momentum Movement, a youth party formed by mostly 25-to-35-year-old university graduates. They are young and fresh, they look good in the media, and they managed to force a governmental retreat despite not having state subsidies, their own media, or wealthy supporters.

Now Momentum appears to be a grassroots organisation poised to become a potent political force in Hungary. In February 2017, three of the six major public opinion research companies published polls in which Momentum had more than one percent of public support. The fact that the pro-government fake news media launched a full frontal assault on Momentum, disseminating lies and misstatements about its leaders, shows that Fidesz, Hungary’s ruling party, is taking the newcomers seriously.

Even though Momentum Movement has existed formally since the spring of 2015, almost no one had heard of them before 2017 – not even politicians or political analysts. This was no accident. Momentum planned its politic strategy and tactics for more than a year before boldly stepping out onto the political stage.

The movement’s visible professionalism contrasts with other newly established Hungarian parties: Momentum had its own style guide, the young representatives shared the same well-written talking points, and, most importantly, the campaign against hosting the 2024 Olympic Games was a well-designed political tool.

The pilot project

Every new political organisation needs a successful pilot project. For Momentum, it was the campaign against Hungary’s bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games. The argument behind the so-called “NOlimpics” campaign was simple and successful: hosting the Olympic Games would cost a lot of money, and Hungary cannot afford to waste scarce budgetary resources for the pet project of influential politicians – instead, this money should be invested in health care and education.

As simple as the message seems, it has a deeper political meaning. The relationship between the competitive sport sector and the political right wing that has been governing the country for almost seven years is nothing if not controversial. Prime Minister Orbán had a stadium built in his native village of Felcsút for the local soccer team, evoking the megalomania of Ceaușescu-era Romania.

The government continues to spend billions of euros on soccer stadiums, and the tenders for overpriced public contracts is mostly won by companies with close ties to government politicians, in particular Lőrinc Mészáros, the mayor of Felcsút and a close ally of Mr Orbán.

And while the Orbán government can boast relatively good – albeit questionable – economic indicators in terms of jobs, budget deficits and wages, the situation in the education and health care sectors has deteriorated significantly in recent years. In order to initiate a referendum on hosting the Olympic Games, Momentum Movement had to collect 138,000 valid signatures in the Hungarian capital, Budapest.

Initially, no one thought this would be possible. Indeed, during the Orbán era no opposition party had ever successfully initiated a referendum against the government. In some cases, such as the sale of public land, they failed to collect enough signatures. In others, such as the proposed internet tax and refugee quotas, the government prevented the action by withdrawing the proposal or taking the lead on the issue.

And when a referendum was initiated by the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) to open the shops on Sundays, the governing party prevented the action with violence against an opposition politician. Given this track record, not many people believed that Momentum’s pilot project would be a success.

But it was. According to figures released by Momentum, almost one thousand activists had helped to collect signatures. The movement became a star in Hungary’s remaining independent media, and by the end of the campaign Momentum had collected more than 266,000 signatures, almost twice as many as were needed.

The government withdraw Budapest’s bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games, although Prime Minister Orbán declared that the referendum initiated by the “dream-killers” could have been won by the government. He might be right, but we will never know because the government decided not to risk the political debacle that a possible referendum loss may have entailed. This victory opened the door for Momentum to officially become a political party.

Struggling between left and right

The aftermath of the signature campaign has posed a new challenge for Momentum: how to stay relevant and not become just one more of Hungary’s many left-liberal opposition parties. Momentum needs to strengthen its support outside Budapest, but voters living in rural areas are much harder to reach without a national network.

It is unclear whether Momentum will succeed, but we do know that among the new parties they have the best chance of winning seats in the National Assembly in 2018. This is perhaps the most we can expect from Momentum now – even the party’s leader, András Fekete-Győr, has admitted that they have no chance of defeating Fidesz in 2022.

In fact, because of the electoral system adopted by the Fidesz supermajority in 2012, it is more likely that a successful Momentum party would actually weaken the chances of an opposition victory by splitting the anti-Fidesz vote. Nevertheless, admitting that Momentum has no ambition to replace the government is clearly a political mistake – one that only newcomers make.

According to the new party’s young leaders, Momentum aims to win over voters from the existing opposition parties as well as Fidesz. Their strategy is quite simple, however, and not so original: Momentum aims to overcome the decade-long struggle between the political left and right by claiming that they have no ideology; they believe in issues, not ideology.

This is not a new phenomenon in Hungarian politics: from the 1990s-era far-right party MIÉP to the current green party  Politics Can Be Different (LMP, which now claims to be the only authentic left-wing party, in contrast to the so-called “fake left” parties), many politicians have experimented with the same strategy.

Some were successful and others failed, but what they all had in common was that ultimately they were exposed. After a certain amount of time in politics, everyone knew that MIÉP was a far-right party and that LMP is green-left party. Ideology cannot remain hidden for long.

At first sight, Momentum seems like a young liberal party. Momentum supports gay marriage, the decriminalisation of cannabis and abortion rights. They are pro-European anti-Putinists and reject neither globalisation nor capitalism, although they do not use the latter term. But their leaders often criticise the “old” parties of the left – and perhaps not for reasons they deserve.

Instead of corruption, a lack of unity (which is essential in Hungary’s current mixed election system that favours majorities) or the performance of the pre-2010 left-wing government, Momentum has accused the left of “not having a positive image of the nation”. That is, albeit more carefully phrased, precisely the same criticism of the left levelled by Fidesz and Prime Minister Orbán.

According to the rhetoric of Hungary’s right wing, the left is unpatriotic, and left-wing politicians are traitors to the nation. This is clearly untrue, and indeed hypocritical coming from government politicians who for years have worked to advance the political and economic interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Momentum’s statement about having a positive image of the nation caused a mini-scandal in the opposition. The vice-president of the new party even wrote an article to explain what they had meant – and failed to win over the critics. Nevertheless, parallel criticism of the government and established left-wing parties could be a successful strategy, but there is not a lot of space in between.

Green party LMP, left-liberal Együtt (Together Movement) and Momentum all aim to reach out to more or less the same groups of voters, and it is highly unlikely that all of them will garner the votes necessary to enter the National Assembly in 2018.

One solution could be a joint party list, which is why Együtt suggested that all the “new” opposition parties – Momentum, LMP and Párbeszéd Magyarországért (PM) – should join forces, leaving out the “old” parties – MSZP and Democratic Coalition (DK). The idea failed in less than a day.

Momentum and LMP declared that they would not form an alliance with any other parties, while PM reacted favourably. It seems that the joint list will not be an option as long as a new opposition party has the slightest chance of entering the National Assembly alone. And of course no party wants to give up its autonomy. Moreover, and even more importantly, under Hungary’s election laws a joint list of two parties must garner ten percent of votes to enter the National Assembly, and a list of three parties requires fifteen percent.  

Nevertheless, the debate around the positive image of the nation revealed the most important contradiction about Momentum so far: if party members lack a common ideological foundation, they are doomed to fall apart in short order. If they have one but deny its existence, they are not telling the truth for reasons of political expediency.

This would not be the first time in the history of politics, of course, but it is clearly not the most impressive start from a fresh, new movement that aims to finish the political transition in Hungary once and for all.

This article is part of our dossier Focus on Hungary.