BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — The decision to withdraw Budapest's bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics is the third political defeat for Hungary's populist prime minister in less than a year.
With the decision announced late Wednesday, Prime Minister Viktor Orban eluded the risks of an opposition-initiated referendum, but was forced to abandon an idea he mentioned wanting to carry out 15 years ago.
Orban, who has pledged to turn Hungary into an "illiberal state" and was an early backer of U.S. President Donald Trump, is considered a European standard-bearer of populist policies, including strong nationalism and anti-immigration.
The decision to end the Olympic bid came just days after a new political party, the Momentum Movement, succeeded in gathering nearly twice as many signatures as needed to force a citywide referendum on the plan to host the Olympics.
In justifying its decision, the government did not mention the Budapest plebiscite, but blamed the opposition parties for dismantling consensus on the bid and politicizing the issue.
Headlines in newspapers that support the government reflected that message on Thursday. The right-wing daily Magyar Hirlap led with "The left wing has again betrayed the nation," while the strongly pro-government daily Magyar Idok said "The opposition shattered our Olympic dreams."
Pulling out of the competition to host the 2024 games was not the first time Oban has backed down from putting his policies to a direct test.
In a similar case last year, the government decided to scrap a Sunday shopping ban instead of allowing a referendum on the issue proposed by the opposition Socialist Party.
And despite a massive propaganda campaign against immigration, low voter turnout invalidated a voter referendum on the issue even though 98 percent of those who cast ballots agreed with the government.
"The opposition has begun using the tools which until now were part of the Fidesz repertoire," Tamas Boros of the Policy Solutions research firm said, referring to Orban's governing party. "They are making politics not based primarily on values or principles, but by saying that a majority of society is behind them."
Pro-government analyst Agoston Samuel Mraz, head of the Nezopont Group political research and consulting firm, said avoiding the referendum on the Olympics was the "only rational decision" for Orban.
"With the referendum expected in the summer, the coming months would have been all about this," Mraz said. "It's important for the government to prevent the opposition from setting the agenda."
Quickly giving up long-held, if unpopular positions could increase indifference among Orban's supporters, but does not present a risk to his leadership just over a year ahead of a parliamentary election, Boros said.
"Simply blaming the opposition and trying to avoid the fact that that the majority did not back the Olympics will be enough for Orban's core supporters," he said.
The Momentum Movement, formed less than a year ago and led by 28-year-old Andras Fekete-Gyor, could become a serious challenger to Orban. It seems to have set its sights on the 2022 election, when Orban could be seeking his fifth term as prime minister.
This story has been corrected from an earlier version to show that Boros is male, not female.