Viktor Orban
© Ferenc Isza/AFP via Getty Images
Viktor Orban casts a ballot on Oct. 13
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's party lost control of Budapest and four of the country's biggest cities, in a major rebuke to his rule after a video of one of his allies at an orgy handed a last-minute gift to a galvanized opposition.

Comment: Sneaky. They did the same thing to the Austrian conservative govt on the eve of May's European Parliament elections. It hits conservative types every time...

The unexpectedly strong showing in local elections across Hungary gave opposition parties, which united behind joint candidates for the first time, momentum to build on their alliance against the self-styled opponent of liberal democracy. Gergely Karacsony, a former district mayor in Budapest, claimed the most important victory on Sunday.

"This election was about how the power of the people is always stronger than the men of power," Karacsony said after Istvan Tarlos, the two-term Orban-backed mayor of Budapest, conceded defeat to him.

For Orban, one of the European Union's most high-profile populist leaders, the loss of Budapest is the biggest electoral disappointment of the past decade after seven consecutive victories in nationwide ballots by his ruling Fidesz party. It's also a signal that after crushing civil society and controlling much of the national media, a significant share of Hungarians nevertheless opposes his rule -- which, to be sure, remains stable.

The development underscores a trend in which nationalists from Turkey to Poland are encountering headwinds in major cities, which tend to lean more liberal and be less receptive to hard-line nativist rhetoric. Opponents of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan scored a shock victory in the Istanbul mayoral race earlier this year and the Polish opposition swept most big cities in local elections in 2018. The nationalist incumbents won Poland's parliamentary poll on Sunday.

In Hungary, opposition parties fielded joint candidates in the capital and other cities to improve their electoral chances. The tactic worked, helping them win 10 of the country's 23 biggest cities outside of Budapest, tripling their previous result. Still, Fidesz retained a solid power base and unchallenged control over large swathes of the country, especially outside major urban areas.

A political gift fell in the opposition's laps in the final week of the campaign, when a video emerged showing the ruling-party mayor of Gyor, western Hungary's largest city, taking part in a sex party on a yacht.

The footage, circulated on porn websites, jarred against the conservative family values that Fidesz projects across its media networks and ubiquitous billboards. Zsolt Borkai, Gyor's mayor, was also accused of using public funds to finance the trip and of using drugs. He has apologized for his behavior but denied the latter accusations.

While Borkai was narrowly re-elected as mayor in the Fidesz stronghold, results elsewhere, including in Budapest, showed that letting him pursue his campaign amidst the scandal may have tipped several close races in favor of the opposition, which portrayed the sex video as uncovering the true face of Orban's party.

Orban Response

Major sex scandals have been rare in recent Hungarian politics but the extravagance of the boat trip wasn't an entirely isolated case. Many of Orban's relatives, advisers and allies from parliament and business have been displaying flamboyant lifestyles, including with hunting jaunts, cruises, private jets and flaunting luxury possessions.

The opposition, which won Budapest for the first time since 2010, still faces an uphill battle. It needs to keep up its momentum until the next parliamentary election in 2022. The EU's fastest economic growth, surging wages and Orban's media juggernaut are working against them.

Orban said he would cooperate with cities that will be led by the opposition, in an apparent reversal of an earlier threat to punish them financially. But he made clear that Sunday's results wouldn't otherwise deter his government.

"The elections showed that Hungary's strongest party is the alliance of Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People's Party," Orban said. "We're going to continue to behave accordingly."