/From Orbán ally to orgy scandal: Downfall of a Fidesz founder

From Orbán ally to orgy scandal: Downfall of a Fidesz founder

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As news spread that one of his EU lawmakers had been at a lockdown-busting party with naked men and drugs, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán faced a dilemma: stand by a close ally who’d been at his side for three decades or cut him loose.

It didn’t take him long to decide.

“What our representative, József Szájer, did has no place in the values of our political family,” Orbán declared to pro-government newspaper Magyar Nemzet on Wednesday evening. While noting that Szájer’s work would not be forgotten, the prime minister said that “his deed is unacceptable and indefensible.”

It was announced that the 59-year-old had quit the ruling Fidesz party, which he co-founded with Orbán and others in the late 1980s as a student movement opposed to communist rule.

Over the decades, Fidesz has transformed into a right-wing populist party that styles itself as a defender of Christian, conservative Europe and is increasingly at odds with Brussels. Szájer’s own political journey mirrors that transformation. But the scandal threatened the credibility of the party and Orbán himself with core voters as Fidesz gears up for a general election in 2022.

For critics of the party, Szájer’s actions reeked of hypocrisy as the party has cracked down on LGBTI rights in recent years and been accused of stigmatizing LGBTI people. The scandal also reinforced a broader view among opponents that at least some Fidesz leaders don’t believe in the arch-conservative policies and rhetoric they have embraced, that they don’t practice what they preach.

The affair shows the “complete moral bankruptcy of Fidesz,” András Fekete-Győr, leader of opposition party Momentum, wrote in a Facebook post. 

István Hegedűs, one of Fidesz’s early members who later quit the party, recalled that in the late 1980s the young Szájer struck him as “very smart” and a “well-prepared, knowledgeable guy.” 

“Originally this kind of radicalism, populism was foreign to him,” Hegedűs said.

But Szájer moved right along with the party. In Hungary, he is best known for having written the country’s controversial 2011 constitution on an iPad, partly on a train commuting between the European Parliament’s seats in Brussels and Strasbourg. 

“Hungary shall protect the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman established by voluntary decision, and the family as the basis of the survival of the nation,” the constitution states.

But his involvement in the lockdown party last Friday, widely described in the Belgian press as an orgy and reported around the world with numerous memorable details, threatened to undo the carefully-crafted image projected by such rhetoric.

The gathering was a clear violation of COVID restrictions but it was the more sensational details that made it a hot topic across Hungary, prompting Orbán to abandon his old ally.

Police found 25 naked men at the gathering, according to the Belgian media reports. A passer-by had reported seeing a man fleeing along the gutter, leading the police to apprehend Szájer and find narcotics in his backpack, prosecutors said.

Szájer, the husband of a high-profile female Hungarian constitutional court judge, had initially tried to contain the scandal. He suddenly announced on Sunday that he would resign from the European Parliament, but did not mention the lockdown party.

After news of the party broke on Tuesday and his name began to circulate in EU circles, Szájer acknowledged that he had been present — but denied that the narcotics belonged to him. He did not initially resign as a member of Fidesz, but was apparently forced into that step as the scandal continued to dominate headlines.

In the early years of Fidesz, Szájer’s sexual orientation was the subject of conversation within the party, but members did not see the issue as important.  

“We considered it a private matter … I think everyone guessed, knew,” said Hegedűs. 

In 2015, another former Fidesz politician, Klára Ungár, publicly claimed that Szájer is gay, sparking a debate on the ethics of labeling individuals as homosexual when they had not done so themselves. 

But Szájer stuck publicly to the Fidesz party line on LGBTI issues as the the government engaged a crackdown.

Earlier this year, Hungary passed a law making it impossible for transgender or intersex people to legally change their gender. Last month, the government proposed legislation in effect banning adoptions by gay couples. The text of a proposed constitutional amendment notes that “the mother is a woman, the father is a man.”

“I am alarmed by the apparent escalation of the stigmatisation of LGBTI people and the manipulation of their dignity and rights for political gain,” the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, said in a statement last month.

Szájer did not respond to questions for this article. In the past, however, he has defended his views on traditional families. Asked in 2011 how he could call a constitution that fails to award family rights to homosexuals a “21st century constitution,” Szájer told media outlet Euractiv that there was no EU requirement in this area. 

“It also depends how we interpret the 21st Century. I don’t think that the traditional concept of marriage has changed just because we came into another millennium,” Szájer said.

Orbán’s man in Brussels 

Like many of his Fidesz colleagues, Szájer was once regarded as a rising liberal political talent — attending the University of Oxford as a visiting student in the late 1980s on a scholarship from Hungarian-American businessman George Soros, whom Fidesz now regards as an arch-enemy.

A lawyer who began his career as an assistant professor of Roman law, he switched to become a full-time politician. He did two stints as Fidesz group leader in the Hungarian parliament and later also served as vice chair of the chamber. 

But unlike some of his counterparts in the upper echelons of the party, he never became a minister, instead serving in the European Parliament from 2004.

Even outside of Budapest, however, Szájer retained the ear of the prime minister. Orbán “always had dinner or lunch with Szájer” when visiting Brussels, said one Fidesz member, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The party member noted that Szájer is “in the narrowest circle” around the prime minister and has had an “important role” in shaping Budapest’s EU policy.

The MEP often functioned as Orbán’s representative in debates within the bloc’s center-right family, the European People’s Party. “He was Orbán’s megaphone in the group, always trying to explain that the left is against all of us,” an EPP official said.

People who have worked with him over the years describe him as a hard-working and fiercely loyal politician. 

“I think he had a very good knowledge of how the big players in Brussels functioned,” said György Schöpflin, a former Fidesz MEP who worked with Szájer in the previous parliamentary term. “I personally think very highly of Szájer’s abilities. I think he is very good, very competent.” 

He also developed a reputation in Brussels as a fierce defender of the Hungarian government in its battles with EU institutions, which accuse Budapest of backsliding on democracy and the rule of law.

“The real goal of the Rule of law-debacle is to discipline Member States, to increase EU competences to the detriment of the member states, in other words, they are thinly veiled attempts to exercise political and financial pressure and blunt federalist assumptions,” Szájer wrote in an opinion piece last month.

EPP members also described Szájer as a rather private and reserved person who did not seek the limelight and made a rather good impression when he was the EPP group’s chief whip in the previous legislature.

“In every trip we went together, he was never the one joining us for a beer after a meeting,” a second EPP official said. But “as a chief whip, he did the job nobody wanted to do, and he did it well.” 

Andreas Schwab, a German MEP from the EPP, described Szájer as “kind, correct and doing a remarkable job to find solutions as vice-president of the group.” 

Ever since he stepped out of that role last year, “we would hear much less from him,” the second official said.

Maïa de La Baume contributed reporting.