By Krisztina Than
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Organizing their campaign from a decrepit basement, a group of young professionals and students have collected a quarter of a million signatures in a month to press for a referendum that could force Budapest to abandon its 2024 Olympic bid.
Their Momentum movement has burst on to Hungary's political scene to challenge Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government and opposition parties a year before elections in 2018.
No opposition group has had such an impact on a major issue since Orban rose to power in 2010. In targeting the Olympics, Momentum has challenged an event seen as being of symbolic importance to the prime minister.
Political backing for hosting the Olympics, which had included most parties, the government and parliament, has evaporated and Budapest's mayor has said he might withdraw the bid, although he is expected to seek government guidance.
The latest among dissident political groupings that have sprung up across Europe to challenge the establishment, Momentum now wants to get into parliament next year. The question is whether it can translate its impact over the referendum issue into political significance.
For now, the group faces major hurdles: Orban's party, Fidesz, has a strong lead in opinion polls, rival leftist parties are scrambling to poach floating voters, and the radical nationalist Jobbik party is moving toward the center.
Momentum's focus on the symbolic referendum issue was "painful" for Fidesz, said Zoltan Novak, project director at the Centre for Fair Political Analysis, a Budapest think-tank.
If Momentum can attract young voters, which they are well positioned to do, "then they have a realistic chance of getting into parliament in 2018", Novak said. But he added: "We don't know at this stage how strong the movement is."
Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said Momentum was created for political purposes and its anti-Olympic campaign had "divided national unity on the issue, and a large part of the opposition parties assisted in this".
At the moment, Momentum's membership is small, at just 150 people. Most were born around 1989, when the young dissident Orban and his Fidesz party first made their mark as a fresh, liberal force that wanted to oust the Communists.
Momentum's leader, a bearded young lawyer, Andras Fekete-Gyor, said it was time to complete the political change that Hungary's parties on left and right had failed to achieve over the past quarter of a century.
"We think that the system change was in the end a failure, so it is not an accident that we are living now in an illiberal state in Hungary and that people want to leave," Fekete-Gyor said, sitting in a shabby armchair in the dim cellar.
"We would like to start a new era."
Fekete-Gyor holds a law degree from the same university as Orban, has studied in Germany and worked in Paris. He was born three months before Orban delivered his famous speech calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops in 1989.
"I would have joined Fidesz at that time and then after a couple of years I would have left Fidesz," Fekete-Gyor said, referring to Orban's subsequent shift to the political right.
Disappointment with cronyism and corruption in the government, and the short-sighted policies of opposition parties have driven hundreds of thousand of Hungarians abroad, he said. Momentum also campaigned in London, Brussels and other cities over the past month.
SHOOTING FOR PARLIAMENT IN 2018
Momentum, which includes people in their 20s and early 30s from Budapest and the countryside, many educated abroad, hopes to appeal to voters across the board, including the undecided voters who make up about one-third of the electorate.
Orban's Fidesz has a firm lead in polls, with 33 percent support, while Jobbik has 13 percent, and the Socialists, the biggest party on the left, 9 percent. Momentum, not yet a political party, does not show up in the polls.
"We are not a left or right party ... we will have strong views on policy matters, we are going to start with healthcare," Fekete-Gyor said. Momentum would be going around the country in coming weeks establishing action groups.
The movement, launched in 2015, has organized summer camps to discuss policy issues. During their referendum campaign, 1,800 activists volunteered to help.
The main challenge for Momentum, which will form a political party next month, will be to keep up the pace and publicity they gained with the referendum campaign and appeal to the countryside.
They raised 17 million forints ($60,000) for their campaign via crowdfunding, and it is not clear how they can find the money to expand, especially given the vast media control and spending Fidesz has at its disposal.
It will be hard for Momentum to break out from being a party of Budapest intellectuals, while their anti-Olympic effort may have displeased voters who support the bid.
"If not to Fidesz yet, Momentum will present an important challenge to the opposition parties in the coming period," said Attila Juhasz, an analyst at think-tank Political Capital.
"But it will depend on how successfully they can build their organization."
Some leftist opposition parties helped Momentum collect signatures for their referendum campaign. But Momentum doesn't want to form an opposition coalition.
"I would be satisfied if we made it into parliament," said another leading member of Momentum, Anna Orosz. "That is our goal, we want to be a strong opposition party."
(Reporting by Krisztina Than; editing by Giles Elgood)