An Orgy on a Yacht Is Testing Orban’s Iron Grip on Hungary

Zoltan Simon

(Bloomberg) -- A video of one of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s allies participating in an orgy on a luxury yacht has presented an unexpected gift to Hungary’s opposition on the eve of local elections. Can it make a difference?

In neighboring Austria, a damaging tape was able to bring down a government. But in Hungary, Orban has tightened his grip on the country over a decade, crushing civil society and controlling much of the national media.

At stake is whether the whiff of scandal can taint him or whether he’s succeeded in making himself untouchable. He’s already made himself a sore point to the European Union with his unapologetic defense of illiberal values.

Municipal elections, as Turkey’s own leader discovered, serve as a warning of the mood among voters.

Opposition parties gained some momentum in the campaign finish from a video published last week showing the mayor of Gyor, western Hungary’s largest city, participating in a sex party on a yacht along with his associates. The footage, circulated on porn websites, jarred against the conservative family values the ruling party projects across its media networks and ubiquitous billboards.

Drugs, Hookers

Zsolt Borkai, the mayor at the center of the controversy, has issued an apology. He denied using drugs or relying on public funds to finance his trips.

But the opposition seized on the opportunity. The Momentum party plastered Fidesz’s offices with posters saying “Public funds, cocaine, whores” to contrast with the ruling party’s slogan of “God, nation, family.”

“The filth that’s come to light in Gyor isn’t unique,” Gergely Karacsony, the opposition’s candidate for mayor of Budapest, told supporters on Friday evening at his final rally. “There’s not two types of Fidesz, there’s only one and it’s rotten to the core.”

A strong showing by the anti-Orban forces in Budapest, the capital, would put the standard-bearer of right-wing populists on notice. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s loss of Istanbul was a stinging blow, though over time it remains to be seen how much it’s hurt him.

The same could apply to Orban.

The risk for the Hungarian ruling party is that fallout from the video hurts voter turnout for Fidesz across Hungary and tips close races, including the one in Budapest, where Karacsony is neck and neck with Istvan Tarlos, a two-term incumbent backed by Orban’s party.

Opposition parties are deploying a new strategy of fielding joint candidates to improve their chances after a string of defeats since 2010.

“Losing Budapest, in particular, would show that Orban is not invincible, increasing the odds that he becomes more defensive and ends up making more policy mistakes,” Naz Masraff, director for Europe at Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultant, said in an email.

Failure to reclaim some big cities despite joining forces for the first time would point to a likely fifth term for the premier after the 2022 parliamentary ballot.

The sex video surfacing so close to the election date has caused a rare short-circuiting among Hungary’s ruling elite, where one of the continent’s most powerful propaganda machines usually manages to drown out scandals involving the ruling party, leaving support for Orban’s party largely unscathed.

On Friday, Borkai called a press conference in Gyor, triggering speculation that he would quit the race and concede the economic hub of western Hungary to the opposition to improve Fidesz’s chances elsewhere. Within an hour, the briefing was called off.

Later that evening, Magyar Nemzet, the mouthpiece of the ruling party, published a scathing article calling on Borkai to stand aside, arguing that he risked bringing down others in Sunday’s election, particularly in toss-up contests like the capital.

Within an hour, the article was removed from the newspaper’s website.

Even if the opposition manages to make big gains on Sunday, it’ll still face an uphill battle to make a dent. Orban can count on the EU’s fastest economic growth, surging wages and his propaganda machine to help him maintain his dominance.

And there are the threats. He’s pledged to punish cities financially if they switch political allegiances.

To contact the reporter on this story: Zoltan Simon in Budapest at zsimon@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net, ;Flavia Krause-Jackson at fjackson@bloomberg.net, Andras Gergely, Amanda Jordan

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