Petition challenge leaves Budapest 2024 bid in balance

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Budapest edged closer on Friday to a possible withdrawal of its bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games, dealing a potential further blow to global organizers’ attempts to find a city to host the event following a number of pullouts.

Hungarian political movement Momentum said had collected more than 266,000 signatures on a petition against the bid, which its leader Andras Fekete-Gyor indicated would be enough to trigger a referendum.

Budapest’s Mayor Istvan Tarlos told a news conference earlier that, if a referendum was called, he would “seriously consider” a proposal to withdraw the bid.

The city is competing against Paris and Los Angeles to host the Games, and an event whose costs have risen sharply over the past 20 years.

If it did pull out, it would join Hamburg, Rome and Boston among candidate cities that later abandoned bids.

“The past 30 days have been one of the most magnificent periods in the history of democracy in Budapest,” Fekete-Gyor told a news conference after the petition result.

Spokesmen for the bid organizers declined immediate comment, but Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s ruling Fidesz party appeared to distance itself from the bid.

Lajos Kosa, a senior Fidesz lawmaker, said the issue was not discussed at a party meeting and the bid was in the hands of Budapest.

Momentum, launched by a group of students born around 1989 when the country’s Communist regime collapsed, has collected the signatures over a month-long campaign.

The Budapest Election Office will now rule whether a sufficient number of valid signatures - in broad terms amounting to 10 percent of Budapest’s around 1.4 million voters - has been collected to call a referendum.

The International Olympic Committee is due to announce the 2024 host city in September.

If Budapest won, Hungary would become the first Eastern European country to welcome the Summer Games in the post-Communist era.

The government and the city’s authorities have both supported the bid vocally but plebiscites are usually risky for Olympic hopefuls.

Hamburg pulled out after a negative referendum result in 2015, while Rome mayor Virginia Raggi ended her city’s bid last year to honor an election promise.

A Zavecz Research institute poll published last week on news website showed 51.95 percent of Budapest citizens would vote against the Olympics, up from 31.7 percent in September.

In a separate survey commissioned by the bid organizers in early December, 55 percent of Budapest residents backed the hosting of the Games.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff, Janos Lazar, said on Thursday that the government was waiting on the outcome of the referendum initiative and would act accordingly.

“The wishes of the people will be respected,” he told a news conference.

Momentum, assisted in the campaign by leftist and opposition parties, advocates spending the huge budget for the Games on sectors including healthcare and education, and postponing any further bids until Hungary is more prosperous.

“If a referendum is called, then we will boost our campaign hard,” Janos Mecs, 25, a leading member of the movement said at a campaign stand in a Budapest square earlier this week.

The stand was erected against the backdrop of a huge pro-Olympics billboard hanging from one of the buildings, where 57-year-old entrepreneur Janos Pasztor braved the chilly weather to add his signature to the campaign.

“First this money should be spent on healthcare so that if I break my leg, I could get to a hospital instead of being taken care of on the street,” he said.

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