The tale of the anti-gay MEP arrested at a gay sex party is not the first, and probably won’t be the last in the long line of scandals that reveal the deep moral crisis of the Hungarian elite. But will it be enough to shake Orban’s system?
On a cold Friday night at the end of November 2020, a naked Hungarian man was arrested by the Brussels police whilst attempting to climb out of the window of a private apartment where a gay chemsex party was taking place, and trying to escape via a gutter. Not only had he violated the lockdown measures, but the police also found Ecstasy pills in his backpack.
This would not be a big story in itself – but the person was József Szájer, a Hungarian Member of the European Parliament, and the leading voice of the ruling Fidesz party in Brussels.
He is also a fervent supporter of anti-drug and anti-gay policies; a celebrated warrior protecting “Christian values” against the attacks of “globalists” and “liberals.”
At the end of the ‘90s, when Orban formed his first government, Szájer was among those who proposed the restriction of the drug-related paragraphs of the Hungarian Criminal Code. As a result, thousands of people who use drugs were prosecuted and sanctioned by criminal courts between 1998 and 2002, who otherwise would have been able to avoid prosecution through alternative treatment options.
In 2011 Mr. Szájer boasted that he drafted the highly conservative constitution – adopted by the government majority without the consent of the opposition – on his own Ipad. This so-called Basic Law banished same sex couples from the institution of marriage and excluded sexual orientation as a grounds to combat discrimination.
Mr. Szájer is not the first Fidesz strongman caught doing something which goes totally against the moral and ideological principles they stand for as a politician. His fellow MEP, Mr. Tamás Deutsch, who was the youth minister and anti-drug coordinator (!) of the first Orban government, was accused by several people of being a cocaine user himself. Though Mr. Deutsch has never been convicted of drug use, a policeman confessed that Mr. Deutsch was arrested by the police while under the influence of illicit substances in a brothel in Sashalom, Budapest.
In 2015 Mr. Árpád Habony, one of the masterminds of Orban’s alt right propaganda machine was caught on video at The Heart, a luxury club in Ibiza known for its wild parties. In the footage, Habony’s pupils are dilated and he repeatedly sniffs his nose whilst watching a female dancer. The video was widely shared on Hungarian social media and led to speculations as to whether he had a cold or, seemingly more likely, had used cocaine onsite.
In the spring of 2019, a deeply religious and conservative Fidesz politician, Gábor Kaleta, the Hungarian ambassador in Peru, was arrested by the Hungarian secret service. He was taken back from his post in Lima to Budapest, where he was held in pretrial detention for several months. Although the police found 19,000 (!) multimedia files containing child pornography on his computer, a criminal court sentenced him to a suspended (!) prison sentence of one year in July 2020. This lenient sanction caused an outcry in a country with disproportionally harsh sentences for even victimless crimes.
In November 2019, a video was leaked that showed Zsolt Borkai, the Fidesz mayor of the city of Győr, attending a party onboard a luxury yacht in the company of his friends and having sex with a sex worker. Mr. Borkai portrayed himself as a family man and a strong supporter of conservative Christian values in his campaign. Although Borkai denied that he used illicit drugs at the party, other participants claimed there was plenty of cocaine onboard.
In August 2020, Mr. Péter Szijjártó, the foreign minister of Hungary, known for his fervent and arrogant outbursts against everybody who dares to criticise his government abroad, was captured by a drone, operated by an anti-corruption NGO, onboard of a luxury yacht in the Adriatic Sea. He secretly spent his holiday there with his family, as a guest of the owner, the billionaire Mr. László Szíjj, an oligarch who is one of the main beneficiaries of public procurements in Hungary. He could not afford this trip, which cost more than several months of his salary.
As an opposition politician back in 2006, Szijjártó harshly criticised the Socialist government for its corruption, claiming that “people had enough of the luxury government. According to Fidesz, people need a plebeian government that favours decisions serving the interests of the people and takes into consideration puritan principles. Instead of limousine-socialists, we need responsible decision makers in the parliament and in the government.” True to his word, as a minister he did not use a limousine but a much more expensive vehicle, a police helicopter, to transport himself from his home in Dunakeszi the 17km to his office in Budapest. According to estimations, he spent millions of forints of tax payers’ money on his flights.
These are only a few examples of the scandals that have befallen the most prominent strongmen of Orban. The full list is too long to include them all.
What is staggering about these stories is not only the unbelievable hypocrisy – the contrast between what they do and what they preach about – but also the lack of adequate political and criminal consequences.
These scandals received a very small amount of coverage in most media outlets closely controlled by the government, including the public media. Although Mr. Szájer resigned, there is no criminal investigation against him in Hungary. Mr. Borkai was re-elected as a mayor after his scandal. Mr. Kaleta received a very lenient sentence. Mr. Szijjártó is still a minister, unlike his Estonian colleague, who had to resign simply because she used her ministerial car to transport her kids from kindergarten. The prosecutor general, Péter Polt, a personal friend of Mr. Orban, has effectively blocked the investigation of any relevant corruption cases involving government politicians since he took his office.
This is in stark contrast with the tough-on-crime policies the government applies to ordinary citizens in Hungary, disproportionally affecting marginalised and vulnerable communities.
A new Criminal Code was adopted in 2013 introducing harsher punishment for many offences. Law enforcement became the primary tool to manage complex social problems, such as homelessness or drug use, whilst the public health and social care systems are underfunded. Hungary is the first EU member state to criminalise homelessness – what is more, it included the prohibition of “the use of public spaces for living” in its constitution.
Hungary has some of the most repressive drug laws and drug law enforcement in the EU, with thousands of young people arrested every year, and many going to prison for several years for growing cannabis. Its national anti-drug strategy, adopted in 2013, aimed to make Hungary a drug-free country by the end of 2020 (a target obviously missed as the prevalence of drug use continues to increase among young people).
On the same day that the international media revealed Mr. Szájer’s scandal, the Hungarian delegation harshly criticised “drug liberalisation” and voted against the WHO recommendations on the recognition of the medical value of cannabis at the session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, breaking the unity of EU member states.
Whilst the strongmen of the Fidesz establishment often lead a frivolous lifestyle, enjoying all the luxuries and pleasures of their wealth and power, the government preaches about puritan, Christian family values to the public. One of their regular rhetorical tools is to contrast Eastern Europe, with its strong protection of white Christian cultural identity, with Western Europe, contaminated by liberalism, migration, and gender ideologies.
Opposition intellectuals often debate how genuine the government’s beliefs in their own ideology are, and how much of it is empty propaganda to control the masses. In all probability, many people in the establishment really do have a strong sense of mission, and their hatred of Western liberalism is genuine. However, this does not prevent them from also believing that they are privileged and deserve to indulge in carnal pleasures whilst at the same time keeping their public face as puritan moral warriors. Much like the Commanders in the fictitious world of the Handmaid’s Tale, they enforce their extremely fundamentalist religious laws but attend wild parties in brothels when the night comes.
In the world of the Hungarian establishment, everything is about pretension. As long as you can pretend to be a heterosexual, family man, as long as you attend church masses and pretend to lead a sober, puritan life, everything is fine. We accept you – and we protect you. It is not talent but political loyalty that is valued the most by these people. The system works pretty much like a mafia. Those who keep their loyalty, who implement all of the bosses’ decisions without question and can keep their mouth shut about his secrets, can enjoy all the privileges of being part of the elite. Powerful positions, holidays, public procurement, and real estate: whatever they desire.
The autocratic system has been quite effective so far at controlling the flow of information by dominating the media landscape. This is especially true in rural areas, where people often live in their own reality bubbles, far from the bubbles created by the independent press and urban intellectuals, who predominantly oppose the Fidesz system.
Mr. Szájer’s scandal was mainly suppressed by the pro-government media. Most articles covering it showed it from a specific angle, making unfounded speculations and accusations about a concentrated attack against Hungary by foreign secret services and, of course, George Soros, the businessman who is portrayed as the arch enemy of the Hungarian people. (By the way, when he was young, Mr. Szájer was a Soros fellow in Oxford too, together with Orban.)
But there are more and more windows opening through which people can steal a glimpse of the unbelievable hypocrisy and cynicism of their elite. Szájer’s case is different from the previous scandals: the picture of a naked conservative politician escaping from a gay sex party via the gutter, with illicit drugs in his backpack is too vivid an image to simply shoo it away. This image will likely burn into the memory of the people. Since the case was made public, Hungarian social media has exploded. Thousands of memes and funny pictures were created on Tumblr, finding their way to Facebook, to be shared and posted by millions of people.
It is unlikely that this scandal can shake Orban’s system in itself. Bur regardless of whether the alleged secret service involvement proves to be true or not, this is a very serious blow to the regime.
As I argued in my earlier article, there are multiple reasons why the ruling party keeps a firm grip on power in Hungary, including its control of the media, its poll-driven governance and its influence on less educated rural population. A scandal in itself is not enough to bring change.
But it is likely that it reached a broad spectrum of the Hungarian population. According to a recent public poll, seven out of ten Hungarians have heard about the scandal. And the majority of Hungarians think that the problem with Mr. Szájer’s bizarre arrest is not that he had sex with men or that he possessed some Ecstasy pills.
The majority of people understand that this is so much more than just about sex or drugs. It reveals the deep moral crisis of the Hungarian establishment.
It is not what Mr. Szájer did during the night at the party that is disturbing. It is what he did as a politician in broad daylight, defending a system in the European Parliament that oppressed people who belong to the same minorities. A system that is built on the lie that the greatest danger to Hungarian people is posed by those who are different, in their colour, in their religion, in their culture, in their sexual orientation or gender. And all systems need to reserve their moral integrity, or at least its illusion, to survive in the long run.