Viktor Orbán looks to sport to boost Hungary’s prestige – POLITICO.eu
BUDAPEST — As the Hungarian government continues to spar with Brussels and other EU capitals, it is turning to sport as an avenue for boosting its international profile and popularity at home.
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives in Budapest Monday for the opening of the World Judo Championships. And in July, the country hosted the International Swimming Federation (FINA) championships, drawing elite swimmers and thousands of visitors to the capital.
While the events win international plaudits, critics of the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán say they are at best expensive vanity projects and at worst, a way to consolidate power through patronage and corruption.
Within the international sporting community, Hungary enjoys a good reputation. FINA, for example, was grateful to Hungary for stepping in after Guadalajara, Mexico canceled saying it could not afford the cost of hosting the event.
“With the support of all the relevant authorities, namely the personal involvement and help from Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the cities of Budapest and Balatonfüred, and the excellent team from the Organizing Committee, everything was ready and delivered on time,” FINA President Julio C. Maglione said. “Our Magyar friends really deserve our sincere recognition and appreciation for this achievement … the kindness and hospitality of the Hungarian people were unforgettable.”
This view of Hungary’s commitment to sport is shared by others in the sporting community.
“Apart from the FIFA World Cup, which is another matter, there’s no major world event that is beyond Budapest’s capabilities” — Viktor Orbán
“Hungary has a fine judo tradition and a big motivation to give a possibility to their current and future judo heroes to compete at the home tatami and to contribute to international judo development,” said Sergey Soloveychik, president of the European Judo Union. Colleagues at the Judo Union report receiving the “fullest support” from the Hungarian government, he said.
At a time when worries are growing across European capitals about the state of democracy and the rule of law in Hungary — French President Emmanuel Macron opted not to meet with the Hungarian and Polish leadership during his trip to the region last week — large-scale sporting events bring some prestige to his country.
“Budapest is the place which is currently proving to itself and the world that there’s no world event — be it a sporting or cultural event, or a religious event such as the International Eucharistic Congress — which it couldn’t host,” Orbán said in a speech on July 22. “Apart from the FIFA World Cup, which is another matter, there’s no major world event that is beyond Budapest’s capabilities,” he said.
Sports spending spree
Orbán’s love of sports goes back to his youth, when he spent much of his time playing football. But as prime minister, he has made support for sporting events and investment in facilities a central part of government policy.
By 2020, Orbán’s government will have built or renovated at least 32 football stadiums, at a cost of approximately 215 billion forint (€709 million) to Hungarian taxpayers, according to calculations by Hungarian investigative news portal Átlátszó. At the same time, the Fidesz government has made donations to sports clubs tax deductible, and money is pouring into government officials’ favorite football clubs and academies.
In Budapest, the Ferenc Puskás Stadium (known as People’s Stadium during the communist era), where Hungary defeated England 7-1 in a friendly in 1954, has been razed to the ground, to be replaced with a new stadium. In Felcsút, a village of 1,800 inhabitants where Orbán grew up, the government built a 3,400-seat stadium across the street from the prime minister’s childhood home.
In most Hungarian villages, the most notable building is a church or mayor’s office. But in Felcsút, the new arena, complete with a unique wooden vaulted roof, dominates the landscape, dwarfing the small homes and farmland around it. The Pancho arena, which cost approximately €12.5 million to build, is part of a complex of 10 playing fields and is home to a football academy that draws players of all ages to the village.
The spending by Orbán’s government is motivated by more than just a love of sport, said Tamás Bodoky, head of investigative portal Átlátszó. “It’s a political move to gain popularity.”
“There is big nostalgia in Hungary for the 1950s football team,” said Bodoky. “Orbán wishes to recreate that international fame for football.”
The Hungarian government’s preoccupation with sport mirrors an approach used in Russia, where the Kremlin uses international sporting events to appeal to “nationalist feeling and pride,” said Denis Volkov, a sociologist at the Moscow-based Levada Center.
The sporting events are “a boost for the legitimacy of the regime that can deliver these achievements,” he said. And among Russians, the Sochi Olympics were “more popular than getting Crimea,” he said, referring to Russia’s military intervention in the Ukrainian territory in 2014.
Allegations of corruption
Critics say that Orbán also uses sport funding as a tool for maintaining vast patronage networks.
A 2016 investigation by Átlátszó found that most of the public funding for stadium construction went to contractors and subcontractors close to the government and ruling Fidesz party.
The contract to build the Felcsút village stadium, for example, was awarded to a company owned by Lőrinc Mészáros — the mayor of Felcsút and one of Orbán’s closest childhood friends. Mészáros did not respond to a request for comment.
Sports events are “suitable for the Orbán government’s state capture tendencies,” said Miklós Hajnal, spokesperson for opposition party Momentum.
“In the case of the 17th FINA World Championships, regulations were changed … in order to guarantee that there is no competition for many public contracts,” he said.
The government has repeatedly rejected allegations of corruption. “If public money is involved, transparency and the tough procurement process are a guarantee,” said Zoltán Kovács, a spokesperson for the Hungarian government.
Ordinary Hungarians do not appear to share their leaders’ enthusiasm for large-scale spending on sport projects though.
Seventy-eight percent of Budapest residents say the city should not spend money on a new Puskás Stadium, including a majority of Fidesz voters in the city, according to a July poll by the Republikon Institute.
Earlier this year, Hungary was forced to withdraw its bid to host the 2024 Olympic games after Momentum collected 266,000 signatures in Budapest — a city of 1 million — in an effort to force a referendum on Hungary’s bid to host the games.
“Hosting the Olympics is a larger burden on a small economy,” said Hajnal, the Momentum spokesperson, referring to the bid as “the political elite’s pet project.”
For some Hungarians, sport projects have come to symbolize government corruption.
“No matter how they try to spin it, these are losses, the most [Orbán] can hope for is to mobilize his own supporters,” said Csaba Tóth, director of strategy at the Republikon Institute.
“The Nolimpia campaign by Momentum showed that there is a majority against the Olympics — and it is difficult to see why that would be different with other events,” he said.
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