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What The Fall Of Hungary’s President Says About Orban’s Grip On The Country

Hungarian President Katalin Novak and former Justice Minister Judit Varga recently resigned amid mounting public outrage over Novak’s pardon of a man convicted of being an accessory to child sex abuse.

The scandal has shaken Hungary and its ruling elite and hints at looming challenges for Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party, who have dominated national politics for a decade and a half.

Here are a few of the things that the fallout tells us about Orban and his party’s grip on the country.

Hungary’s Hamstrung Media Punch Above Their Weight

Novak’s was not postcommunist Hungary’s — or even Fidesz’s — first presidential resignation. Former Olympic fencer Pal Schmitt stepped down as head of state over a plagiarized dissertation in 2012, less than two years after a Fidesz majority put him in office. Schmitt’s transgression was initially unearthed by the weekly Heti Vilaggazdasag (Weekly World Economy) magazine, now known as HVG.

HVG provided impetus for Novak’s resignation too when, in January, it shone a light on her extensive use of clemency to “break 30-year records in pardons” with 40 last year alone.

But the greater public impact came after the publication of an article by the independent 444.hu website on February 2 homed in on the Endre K. pardon based on the evaluation of a pardon application issued by Novak’s office in April. It cited a subsequent court ruling from September upholding Endre K.’s guilt, saying that “one of our readers…drew our attention to it.”

Novak’s office issued a statement attempting to contain the damage, saying that “no one convicted of pedophilia has ever received a presidential pardon and they never will.” A little over a week later, with protests looming, Novak resigned in a televised address with a message of apology and acknowledging “a mistake” but adding that she would never knowingly pardon “anyone who I thought abused children physically or psychologically.”

The dramatic impact of the events suggests that even with the barest of institutional support, Hungarian journalism is punching above its weight.

Orban has used chummy ownership structures, preferential ad placement by state and other institutions, and government and NGO restructuring in Hungary to clamp down on independent media, leaving many major media outlets in the hands of Fidesz allies. Recently passed “sovereignty defense” legislation created what the European Union and other critics say could be a further tool against persistent Orban critics in the media.

But a small, dedicated corps of independent journalists has used digital platforms including YouTube, e-mail, and local websites to counter what they regard as top-down efforts to quash criticism of Fidesz and its state and local officials.

Fidesz Is Feeling The ‘Shock’

Whether railing against immigration or defending anti-LGBT legislation, Viktor Orban has portrayed himself as a bulwark against an erosion of traditional family values. The nature of this scandal — state institutions granting clemency to a conspirator helping cover up the long-running sexual abuse of children — could publicly undermine that message.

It could also threaten perceptions of Fidesz discipline as the current parliamentary term nears its midpoint.

A Fidesz source inside the government, who requested anonymity because they were not free to discuss the internal situation publicly, acknowledged to RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service that “This is now very unpleasant for everyone.”

“There is silence and shock in the party,” another source said.

Veteran Hungarian constitutional lawyer Tibor Sepsi hinted at the cost of apparent shortcuts in the doling out of presidential pardons in this case, even if some officials were unaware of underlying details of the case. He said decades of pardons since the fall of communism suggest that there’s no need for constitutional amendment but rather that “properly functioning democracies” rely on proper investigations by the authorities in such cases.

“Until now, the common sense of the justice minister and the president of the republic prevented something like this from happening,” Sepsi told RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service. “The constitution allows an amazing amount of things, but we don’t do them [all].”

Orban Quickly Got Involved In Damage Control

As the extent of the public outrage became clear and alarm mounted in Fidesz’s own ranks, Orban vowed the day before Novak’s resignation to propose a constitutional amendment to narrow the pardon powers of the presidency.

Orban headlined his effort on social media “Pedophiles get no mercy!” As part of the cleanup, he said, “In the case of crimes committed against children, perpetrators will not be granted pardons!”

He appeared to be circling the wagons in anticipation of Novak’s political demise.

But there has already been a prominent defection. Varga’s ex-husband, Peter Magyar, a longtime lawyer and a fixture of the nexus between Fidesz and the public and private sectors, broke publicly with Orban’s regime in an explosive interview after Novak’s and Varga’s resignations.

In an extended interview for independent YouTube channel Partizan on February 11, Magyar avoided blaming Orban directly but suggested the prime minister “is responsible for who he surrounds himself with.” He complained of excessive influence in the hands of longtime government messaging chief Antal Rogan and other Fidesz luminaries. He said Rogan was not the problem, per se, but rather “he embodies what the problem is.”

He described himself as a key player in Fidesz circles whose aim is not to “threaten anyone, but I want change and I want this country to move in the right direction.”

Two Rare Female Voices Are Gone

A perceived lack of women in senior government posts is a problem that dogged Hungarian governments before Orban’s. But with Fidesz supermajorities in every parliament since 2010, women have seemingly remained an afterthought.

“There are some talented women who might be able to [endure harsh political attacks], but I’m not surprised they don’t apply for the job,” Orban said famously in 2015, rattling off a short list that included Novak.

Now, the pardon scandal has dealt major blows to Novak and another of the ruling party’s most influential female politicians.

Fidesz elevated Novak to its vice presidency two years after Orban’s “talented women” comment, and Orban named her to a newly created post as minister for family policy in 2020. A mother of three, she became Hungary’s first female president with an overwhelming parliamentary majority in 2022. Once in office in what is a largely ceremonial post in Hungary’s parliamentary system, she played a key role in reminding Hungarians of traditional social values as they were espoused by Fidesz and with rare exceptions generally steered clear of publicly challenging Orban’s domestic and foreign policies.

Then-Justice Minister Judit Varga,appears in parliament in Budapest in February 2023.

Then-Justice Minister Judit Varga,appears in parliament in Budapest in February 2023.

The second early casualty of the pardon scandal is a former justice minister who was another expected to lead the party’s list of candidates for the European Parliament in June. Judit Varga’s countersignature was required on any pardon that was issued during her tenure as minister before she stepped down in June 2023. Following a week of silence after the 444.hu report broke, on February 10 Varga announced the resignation of her parliamentary seat and her European candidacy, as well as her retirement from public life.

The Timing Is Awkward For Orban

The fall of his hand-picked president comes at a challenging time for Orban well beyond the cost-of-living crisis he and Fidesz are feeling domestically.

He is still battling the European Union over the bloc’s support for Ukraine against Russia’s nearly two-year-old full-scale invasion and Western criticism of Budapest’s ongoing cozy ties with Moscow.

And Hungary assumes the EU Presidency in July for a term that Orban’s Western critics fear will only sharpen differences and highlight that he is out of step with much of the bloc well beyond foreign policy but also on issues of democracy and rule of law.

Then there is Varga’s exit from the top of Fidesz’s candidates list for the European Parliamentary elections in June. Fidesz members have already spent nearly three years adrift since quitting the largest center-right grouping, the European People’s Party (EPP), before the EPP could suspend it.

And a majority of members have already built on “12 areas of concern” by decrying “deliberate and systematic efforts of the Hungarian government” to undermine European values.

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