Borkai's sex tape scandal - Fidesz's communication breakdown right before the municipal elections

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On Friday afternoon, the mayor of Győr recently caught up in a sex tape scandal, Hungarian governing party Fidesz's mayor Zsolt Borkai suddenly announced an "extraordinary press conference" only to be canceled a short while later, an hour before the presser was supposed to begin. Pro-government political daily Magyar Nemzet then published an article demanding Borkai to step down, only to be removed from the site a mere 45 minutes later - the editor-in-chief claims it was a "technical issue," and the article (published without a name) does not reflect the opinion of the paper. Borkai's sex tape scandal could hurt Fidesz's chances not only in Győr, but nationwide as well, which is why Fidesz is trying to draw a line between themselves and Borkai. But so far, instead of professional crisis management, there only seem to be signs of confusion and panic.

Two days before the Hungarian municipal elections (to be held this Sunday) and a week after the scandal of Győr's mayor broke out, close to the finish line of the campaign, Fidesz appears to be uncharacteristically uncertain. There seems to be a lot of head-scratching within about how to handle the delicate situation, and this became even more apparent on Friday evening.

Borkai's scandal In a nutshell

Last Friday, an anonymous blog started publishing pictures showing Győr's mayor and former Olympian Zsolt Borkai in the company of his long-time confidante Zoltán Rákosfalvy on a yacht in the company of two women who appeared to be prostitutes - video snippets published by the blog later revealed the two having sex with the women.

Besides posting evidence of the orgy on the yacht, the author claiming to be a disgruntled lawyer with close connections to Borkai and Hungarian governing party Fidesz also stated that the mayor consumed cocaine at the orgy (but posted no evidence yet).

With some incongruencies, the blogger calling himself the "Devil's Advocate" detailed the corrupt dealings of Borkai and Rákosfalvy concerning agricultural land that they had acquired through off-shore companies, only to subsequently sell the land to carmaker Audi for a much higher price after the city of Győr, led by Borkai, rezoned it as an industrial area. The story itself is nothing new, as it made headlines in 2012, but then, there were no consequences. Now though, it really seems to have shaken the political positions of Borkai, whose Facebook tagline still reads "Family man, Olympian, Mayor."

By the way, this is far from being the only scandal involving leaked footage in this particularly rough campaign, read our compilation on sex scandals here, read about the cocaine abuse and corruption allegations against the opposition's XIX. district local representative here and here, and you can find our story on Gergely Karácsony's recorded conversations here.

On Friday afternoon, state newswire MTI published that Zsolt Borkai would hold a press conference at 6:00 PM, and as out of the blue as this announcement was, the cancellation came just as suddenly: an hour later, they called off the presser, giving no explanation whatsoever.

Members of Fidesz's campaign team told Index upon our inquiry that the mayor caught up in a sex scandal and allegations of corruption will make a written statement later on.

When we asked what this statement would be about, a team member responded:

"If there will be any..."

A short time later an anonymous opinion piece appeared on the website of Magyar Nemzet, the flagship of Fidesz's giant media conglomerate, titled "Dangerous territory." The toughly worded article read Borkai should have stepped down days ago, and the piece also referred to the embarrassing situation in which the whole ordeal placed Fidesz.

"Zsolt Borkai dumped a cartload of tacks onto the floor, and he is now forcing his own family and his fellow politicians to walk around barefoot, in blindfolds. This situation could have been easily avoided. He should have stepped down days ago."

One hour later the article disappeared from the website without a trace. Magyar Nemzet's editor-in-chief explained away the strange phenomenon by saying that the piece was the solitary opinion of one of their staff members, and it did not reflect the views of the paper, the only reason it was published was a "technical issue." Why this sounds strange is that the article did not only appear on the website, but it was also posted over the various social media surfaces of Nemzet before they were too removed.

One possible explanation for these events is that Fidesz's organization in Győr was not in agreement with the campaign team and the communications staff on how the Borkai-scandal should be resolved, and the party's president, Viktor Orbán was not available, as he was meeting French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris.

Fidesz's supporters made uncertain?

Political weekly Magyar Hang (ran by people formerly on Magyar Nemzet's staff before its sudden political realignment last year) reported that Borkai's scandal prompted crisis meetings in Fidesz's national campaign team, and Friday's fluster was attributable to this.

Magyar Hang writes that the party's internal surveys made it apparent that the scandal could have nationwide ramifications, as its effects do not seem to stop at the border's of Borkai's town, Győr. Fidesz's camp seems to have been turned off by the scandal, and it could have a chilling effect on their turnout at the election on Sunday, which could affect Fidesz's results everywhere, especially in Budapest. A source in Fidesz told the paper:

"The latest polls show that Borkai's scandal could drag other candidates down as well, including Budapest's incumbent Lord Mayor, István Tarlós."

The latest polls show Tarlós and his challenger, the opposition's joint candidate Gergely Karácsony to be head-to-head against each other in the race for the mayoral seat of Budapest, which is of critical importance to Fidesz too. Thursday evening, when a panel representing the major pollsters discussed their predictions for the elections, most of them said it is probable that the Borkai-scandal will have an effect on the results, however, nobody dared to prognosticate how.

Fidesz trying to keep distance

Fidesz's embarrassment over their mayor's scandal was made apparent by several signs popping up all throughout the past week, the party tried to gradually distance themselves from Zsolt Borkai. So far, Fidesz's response was that the scandal would remain within city limits, and initially, pro-government and public media tried to hush it up and make the case seem insignificant, and despite the scandal, Fidesz was firm in their belief that Borkai can still pull off a victory in Győr, and they can smooth things out after the elections (our sources said that holding a by-election later on with another candidate running was on the table). This is what was upset by Friday's announcement about the press conference, and its subsequent cancellation - we do not yet know who called the shots on that, and on the sudden appearance and disappearance of Magyar Nemzet's article. 

What we do know is that Fidesz is attempting to back out of the situation. The party's press department had shrugged the scandal off by saying that it is Borkai's private matter, and Fidesz's VP Katalin Novák was the first to speak out of line: She told Index that the behavior of Győr's mayor was "not exemplary." At Thursday's weekly government press conference, Chief of Staff Gergely Gulyás also hit a stern note, but the statement made on Thursday by Fidesz's mayor of Budapest István Tarlós was even more auspicious. 

In his interview on InfoRadio, Tarlós said Borkai is "unacceptable, indefensible, and undignified," and he should have stepped down by that point. As the Lord Mayor of Budapest, he rarely opines on matters outside of Budapest, therefore this seemed to confirm that Borkai's scandal has a negative effect on Fidesz's supporters' willingness to vote even outside Győr and that it could mobilize undecided voters - most likely for the opposition.

Fidesz seems to have fumbled at the campaign's home stretch. the party, whose campaign tactics usually keep them on the offense, was forced into a defensive position, having to explain away the sex tapes of their mayor in Győr.

The opposition jumped at the scandal too, even if their reaction time was anything but fast.

Párbeszéd (Karácsony's party) and Jobbik had filed reports to the police, Momentum's youth organization spraypainted "Cocaine Government" on the pavement in front of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's office, small opposition party Szolidaritás handed out 30 000 fliers all over Győr, and Momentum started an 'informatory campaign' near Fidesz's local offices everywhere, and more and more politicians are speaking up against Borkai.

This article is a translation of the Hungarian original published by Index, with added context.
(Cover illustration: Szarvas / Index)

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