Is This 28-Year-Old Hungary's Next Great Hope?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because change starts by building momentum.
By Dariusz Kalan
The basement is filled with tables, mismatched chairs and a worn sofa. This former hair salon near Budapest’s main train station lacks flair, except for the fact that it’s now home to Hungary’s Momentum Party, led by 28-year-old András Fekete-Győr.
“We still work to make it cozier, but it looks promising,” he says as we settle into chairs. The same could be said about this slim lawyer with piercing eyes. Since last fall, when Momentum challenged the country’s powerful prime minister, Viktor Orbán, Fekete-Győr has been one of the most buzzed-about politicians in Hungary. The group amassed more than 250,000 signatures for a referendum opposing Orbán’s flagship project to host the 2024 Olympic Games in Budapest, citing prohibitively high costs. And the government ultimately withdrew its Olympic bid, in large part due to Momentum’s campaign. “Momentum smartly linked general dissatisfaction with the government with this single issue, fueling anti-Orbán sentiments,” says Szilárd Szőnyi, deputy editor-in-chief of Heti Válasz weekly.
“Enthusiasm, activism, belief,” Fekete-Győr says, are the factors that most contributed to his party’s success. On May 1, Momentum mobilized 10,000 people who took to the streets to protest Hungary’s rapprochement with Russia. And they’ve set their sights on getting elected to parliament in 2018 — ambitious for a political party with some thousand members that raises money from crowdfunding and membership fees. But what they lack in cash and infrastructure they make up for in untapped resources. “For years, the younger generation kept silent or moved abroad,” Fekete-Győr says. “It’s high time to wake them up.”
He accuses Fidesz and Orbán of pulling the country backward by spreading corruption [and] making backroom deals with Russia.
He’s passionate, eloquent and, according to some, reminiscent of a young Orbán. Momentum, like Fidesz — the right-wing party Orbán launched in 1988 as a liberal youth movement — was founded by a group of friends in their mid-20s. Zsuzsanna Szelényi, a member of the Hungarian parliament, belonged to the first generation of Fidesz activists and watched Orbán mature from a liberal democrat into a populist. Is Fekete-Győr anything like him? Both are effective speakers, she says, “but Orbán, even as a youngster, was a revolutionary. András seems to be far more moderate and sophisticated.”
Fekete-Győr and Orbán, 54, both graduated from Bibó István College at Budapest’s Eötvös Loránd University, and they share a passion for football. “But he’s a striker and I’m a midfielder,” says Fekete-Győr. “This tells a lot about our thinking about politics.”
Yet another parallel: Momentum has been campaigning with the slogan Orbán used 30 years ago: a call to “change the system.” Fekete-Győr accuses Fidesz and Orbán of pulling the country backward by spreading corruption, making backroom deals with Russia and using the media to spout propaganda. “They revolted against communism, but they didn’t know any other life than under communism,” says Fekete-Győr.
Raised in Budapest by outspoken anticommunists, Fekete-Győr learned from a young age that Fidesz was the only hope for Hungary. He even voted for them in 2010, and then disillusionment set in. When he rebelled against Fidesz, it wasn’t easy for his parents to accept (his dad was a longtime employee of the National Deposit Insurance Fund of Hungary).
According to Fekete-Győr, politics played a minor role in his rebellion. “It was love,” he explains. As a law student, he attended a legal competition in Hong Kong, where he fell for a Muslim girl from Singapore. “At home, I learned about hierarchy and order. She told me about mutual respect and cooperation. She opened my eyes.” He began to question his home country’s political system while gaining perspective from studying in Paris and working in Berlin as an assistant to Hans-Peter Friedrich, a long-serving member of the Bundestag.
Yet Fekete-Győr adheres to a surprisingly rightist agenda on immigration, insisting “every nation has its right to protect borders and say we want no migrants.” Sound Orbánish? Perhaps, but Momentum’s platform also promotes progressive taxation, supports gay marriage, is unambiguously pro-EU and promises to restore constitutional checks and balances. “We’re neither right nor left,” Fekete-Győr maintains. “Our policy is based on issues, not ideology.”
Such platitudes tend to invite criticism that Momentum’s members are naïve, idealistic and ill-prepared to take on their elders. But they are also by and large young professionals who know how to leverage social media, mobilize protests and, as Fekete-Győr stresses, “prove that politics can be sexy.” Their goal for the 2018 parliamentary election is humble: to cross the 5 percent threshold for gaining parliamentary seats. But even if it takes until the next vote, in 2022, for Momentum to come in first, Fekete-Győr would be just 33 — making him the youngest head of government in Hungary’s history.
But György Schöpflin, Fidesz member of the European Parliament, is skeptical: “I don’t believe they can get to parliament. They lack any sort of experience.” According to May polls, Momentum will draw a mere 4 percent, but they have a year to build support, and they’ll need to establish a following outside the capital. “My constituency is located in the town of Szombathely. No one knows them there,” says Schöpflin. “They might be popular in Budapest, but Budapest is not Hungary.”
At this, Fekete-Győr reminds me the same was said about the old Fidesz before its candidates claimed 22 seats in the national assembly in 1990. “They also must have started in a basement like this.”
The mention of Fidesz prompts me to ask Fekete-Győr if he can imagine the next generation taking to the streets, in 20 or 30 years, to oppose him and his nonliberal regime. He thinks for a few moments, and then: “I can imagine them protesting, but not because we’re nonliberal. If someone doesn’t agree with our politics, that would be good. This is their right.”
Correction: The original version of this feature mistakenly misquoted the subject in one instance.
- Dariusz Kalan, OZY Author Contact Dariusz Kalan