ISSN 2330-717X

Corruption Couldn’t Shake Orban’s Credibility: A Sex Scandal Just Might – OpEd

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The sex-and-drugs scandal engulfing Hungary’s Fidesz is very different from previous ones, because the entire family-oriented, conservative image it has carefully constructed around an increasingly oppressive and corrupt government is at stake.

By Szabolcs Panyi

When the police arrested a ruling party politician for corruption this week – an astonishingly rare occurrence in Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Hungary nowadays – journalists as well as readers paid little attention. The deputy state secretary is accused of accepting a bribe in return for arranging a huge, non-repayable agricultural grant, receiving a 5 per cent stake in the beneficiary company. This is exactly the kind of systemic corruption that Hungary has been entangled in for years – and finally, here was evidence and firm action by the police.

Yet the Hungarian public has been far more preoccupied with a story of a very different police raid this week.

Jozsef Szajer, one of the so-called “dorm guys” – the closest confidants of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the original founders of his Fidesz party – was forced to resign from the European Parliament and quit Fidesz after being busted in Brussels in what seems to have been a gay orgy involving 25 men and drugs.

As Szajer later claimed, he only received an “oral warning” from the police for attending the sex party, which was held in violation of Belgium’s COVID-19 restrictions. Although he tried to flee the scene by climbing out of a window and ecstasy pills were found in his backpack (he denies they belonged to him), it doesn’t seem likely that he will face any serious legal trouble.

However, no corruption scandal could have dominated the news or inflicted more serious damage on his party’s reputation than this latest affair.

Not wishing to sound like I’m complaining, but as a Hungarian investigative journalist it is not always easy to cope with how little consequences there are to our stories. Just recently, Orban became the longest-serving prime minister in Hungary’s history. Corruption stories connected to his friends, cabinet or even family members have been around for ages. For example, my colleagues have been constantly digging up new and factual evidence of how Orban’s own family is secretly benefiting from EU funds and government contracts – and they have been doing this for years. Neither the police nor the Office of the Prosecutor General – directly controlled by the government – has shown much interest in launching any kind of investigations.

Part of the reason why the effect of such stories is not reflected in, for example, opinion polls is that there is a certain fatigue after so many years and even more scandals. And the government is fully aware of how the public’s psychology works.

Years ago, a high-ranking Fidesz politician, a communications guy, told me the following: if we can make the voter see that the opposition is just as corrupt as we are, in the end they won’t care about who steals and how much. All they will care about is who does more for the country, who is more patriotic. So the strategy is crystal clear: let’s talk about values and morals instead of corruption.

Hence, Viktor Orban’s government has been portraying itself as a staunch supporter of Hungarian families and hard-working, ordinary people; a government that defends old-school conservative values. The opposition, of course, is labelled as out-of-touch, elitist, liberal and unmoral. This has always been the case, there is nothing new here.

Yet in recent years, Hungary’s government has started implementing a more systematic use of so-called ‘negative campaigning’. Starting in 2015, spin doctors working for the government first made a new public enemy out of migrants and Muslims, then of the Hungarian-born US billionaire George Soros. As these scapegoats and slogans started wearing thin, Fidesz began looking for a new enemy.

This is how gays, lesbians, transsexuals and non-binary people have increasingly found themselves in the crosshairs. When the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic hit the country and the economy in the spring, Orban’s government was quick to pass new legislation not to mitigate the damage from the pandemic, but to end the legal recognition of transsexual people and to write into law that one’s gender is based on their chromosomes at birth. The issue was extensively covered by the domestic media and was even picked up by international outlets, meaning that the distraction worked perfectly.

Then Orban pulled the same trick again during the second and more dangerous wave of the pandemic. This time, his government proposed amending the constitution to ban adoption for same-sex couples. The government’s anti-LGBT rhetoric became so pervasive that Orban personally joined a hate campaign vilifying a children’s book for including LGBT characters in fairy tales.

This was exactly the fantasy world – carefully tailored for rural, conservative Fidesz voters – which collapsed a few days ago with the scandal surrounding Szajer.

Old buddies

Orban as well as all the other former dorm kids now occupying all the top positions in Hungarian public life – including President Janos Ader and Speaker of the National Assembly Laszlo Kover – have known Szajer for yonks. They have not only worked, campaigned and governed together, these people are each other’s closest confidants and family friends, with their kids growing up together.

Moreover, that Szajer, who is married with a daughter, was living a double life has been an open secret in political and media circles since the 1990s. However, it was unknown to the general public, as the Hungarian media usually respects the privacy of political figures. Szajer’s way of life has never been seen as an issue worth writing about. But the political party that Szajer helped found in the late 80s as one of those dorm kids was almost the exact opposite of what it has since become.

Fidesz, originally an acronym for Alliance of Young Democrats, was actually a radical, liberal – and gay-friendly – youth movement. In the early 90s, it even caused controversies by mocking the hypocrisy and overearnestness of right-wing and conservative parties at the time. Klara Ungar, a popular and well-known MP of Fidesz, later became the first politician in Hungarian history to ever come out as homosexual in 2001.

However, Ungar had already quit Fidesz by then, as she was opposed to how Orban was firmly steering the party towards the ideologically opposite end of the political spectrum. Others like Szajer, though, decided to stay and help Orban’s rise to the top as he united the right-wing parties and became the new leader of Hungary’s conservative movement.

Szajer was heavily involved in the daily political battles, first as the faction leader of Fidesz, then some years later as head of the Fidesz delegation in the European Parliament.

In 2010, when Orban returned to power with a much more ambitious plan, Szajer helped him subvert Hungary’s legal system by writing an absolutely partisan new constitution. Szajer’s text included a whole new paragraph on marriage and families, stating that it could only occur between a man and a woman. Hungary’s new fundamental law, penned by Szajer, helped lay the groundwork for all future anti-LGBT measures.

It is no surprise, then, why Szajer’s hypocrisy has been the talk of the town in Budapest for days. People riding the metro or the bus are scrolling through their phones searching for juicy new details about the Brussels orgy; public transport is filled with laughter and smiling faces.

The story is everywhere, and its aftermath could be just as devastating. Most recently, the orgy’s host claimed that his sex parties have attracted as many as nine Fidesz MEPs and MPs, as well as four from Poland’s governing party, the conservative Law and Justice (PiS). These are, of course, absolutely unsubstantiated claims – in this respect, they are very similar to the ones that the Hungarian government’s propaganda machine intentionally spreads about its own enemies. Orban’s pundits are now on the defensive and suggesting that Szajer has been the victim of a sting operation by evil globalist forces. Perhaps even George Soros, who knows?

These strange and contradictory accusations only further fuel the damage done to the credibility of Orban’s government. Cabinet members are now being cordoned off from journalists to avoid embarrassing questions on Szajer, while Orban himself has been forced to throw one of his closest friends under the bus and distance himself from Szajer’s “unacceptable” behaviour.

This scandal, thus, appears to be very different from previous ones, because the entire family-oriented, conservative image that has been carefully constructed around an increasingly oppressive and corrupt government is at stake.

Or, as in another children’s fairy tale – which is actually very fitting to Szajer’s story – the emperor’s new clothes are starting to look like just an illusion, leaving nothing behind but a naked and ridiculed ruler.

Balkan Insight

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (fornerkt the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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