The story so far: Five-term Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is facing his biggest backlash since taking office in 2010, as the nation’s President Katalin Novák resigned on February 10 over pardoning a man involved in child sex abuse. Along with Ms. Novak, former Justice Minister Judit Varga, who had also signed off on the pardon, resigned from Parliament, taking responsibility for the act.
With the exit of both Ms. Varga and Ms. Novak — the only two high-ranking women officials in Mr. Orban’s government — resentment against the Hungarian Prime Minister has increased, with several critics accusing him of shielding himself with the two women. Protestors have taken to the streets demanding Mr. Orban’s resignation as well.
After several days of silence, Mr. Orban issued a statement on February 17, promising several new laws cracking down on child abuse. He has accepted both Ms. Vagra and Ms. Novak’s resignations, stating that there is no room for clemency to child abusers. He also urged party MPs to urgently vote for a new President.
Why has the President resigned?
46-year-old President Novak has come under fire for granting clemency to Endre Konya, former deputy director of a state orphanage who was jailed for helping to cover up sexual abuse of children. Mr. Konya had persuaded children to withdraw their testimony of sexual abuse against the orphanage’s director and was sentenced to a three-year prison sentence in 2022. He was also barred for a further five years from all activities and occupations involving minors.
In April 2023, Ms. Novak pardoned twenty-five people during a visit by Pope Francis, including Mr. Konya. The names of the pardoned individuals were made public on February 2, leading to an outcry. Around a thousand people took to the streets of Budapest on February 9, demanding Ms. Novak’s resignation. The call for her ouster was backed by Opposition parties, who pointed out that Ms. Novak’s ‘family-centric’ beliefs were in conflict with her actions.
Ms. Novak, a mother of three, has staunchly advocated for a ‘family friendly’ Hungary, supporting traditional roles for men and women. As Mr. Orban’s Minister of Family Affairs, she had introduced several financial regulations aimed at mothers, large families and grandparents, highlighting the woman’s primary role as ‘child-bearers and caregivers.’
A practising conservative Christian, Ms. Novak has supported Mr. Orban’s anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion views, backing ‘traditional families’ (with male-female couples). After being elected as the first woman President of Hungary in 2022, Ms. Novak vowed to rule by ‘values predicated on Christianity’ and to ‘protect human life from conception.’
She stepped down as President on February 10, issuing a statement on state television. “I made a mistake … Today is the last day that I address you as a President,” she said, adding she had thought the pardoned individual had not abused the vulnerability of children under his care. “I made a mistake as the pardon and the lack of reasoning was suitable to trigger doubts over the zero tolerance that applies to paedophilia,” she said.
Political backlash following Novak’s resignation
Immediately after Ms. Novak’s resignation, her fellow Fidesz member and former Minister of Justice Judit Vagra, who had signed off on the presidential pardon, resigned an an MP and retired from public life.
In a Facebook post, Ms. Vagra took political responsibility for her actions and wrote that she was ‘”resigning my seat as a member of parliament and also as leader of the European Parliament list.” The 43-year-old Fidesz MP was on the top of the list of leaders from her party to lead Hungary in the 2024 European Parliament election scheduled in June.
Both Ms Novak and Ms Vagra are long-time allies of Mr. Orban and have been at the forefront of pushing his conservative agenda. While Ms. Novak has been responsible for ‘softening’ Mr. Orban’s image domestically by pushing a family-focused, Christian agenda, Ms. Vagra is the face of the Fidesz party’s battle against left of centre European Union (EU) lawmakers.
Prior to being elected to the highest office, Ms. Novak had worked in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Human Capacities and Family and Youth Affairs and was later elected as Vice President of Fidesz. She also served as Mr. Orban’s Minster of Families between 2020-21 before being his pick for President. Touted as a motherly figure, Ms. Novak was picked in a bid to woo female voters ahead of Mr. Orban’s re-election in 2022.
Meanwhile, Ms. Vagra, who speaks Hungarian, English, German, French, and Spanish, is known as a Orban loyalist with the necessary foreign experience to deal with Brussels. Apart from being Mr. Orban’s ally, Ms. Vagra has previously worked as an adviser for Hungarian members in the European Parliament (MEP) between 2009 and 2018, before being appointed as Minister for Justice in 2019. A vocal critic of the EU, she has taken the lead in defending Mr. Orban’s policies and negotiating with the EU to unfreeze funds marked for Hungary.
The departure of both women has created a vacuum in Mr. Orban’s all-male cabinet — the only such one in Europe — as criticism of Mr. Orban’s autocratic governing increases. Apart from the two women, Mr. Orban’s communications chief Antal Rogan and his personal adviser Zoltan Balog too are under fire for their role in the controversial pardon. Mr. Balog had allegedly lobbied for Mr. Konya’s clemency — a charge he has denied. Both men are still in office and are yet to comment on the issue.
Accusing Mr. Orban of shirking accountability, Hungarian MEP Anna Donath said, “Viktor Orbán was not ashamed to hide behind the skirts of two women instead of taking responsibility. That is why this matter cannot be allowed to close like this.” The Democratic Coalition, Hungary’s largest Opposition party, has called for direct presidential elections to replace Ms. Novak, instead of a replacement being appointed by the Fidesz lawmakers.
What has Orban done in response?
To limit political damage, Mr. Orban has tabled a constitutional amendment which prohibits the President from pardoning crimes committed against children. However, according to analyst Dániel Hegedus of the German Marshall Fund, core supporters of the Fidesz were shocked by the resignations, questioning why the two senior politicians were made scapegoats in the scandal, despite their steadfast loyalty to Mr. Orban.
Mr. Hegedus claims that an internal polling by the party had revealed that the pardon did not sit well with conservative voters, threatening to alienate them. According to him, the two women leaders were made to step down, at the behest of Mr. Orban, to appease these voters. However, the move has not gone down well among Fidesz members, several of whom have criticised the callousness with which Ms. Novak and Ms. Vagra were discarded.
Peter Magyar, a top Fidesz leader and Ms. Vagra’s ex-husband has openly criticised the government and resigned from several state-owned companies. In a series of social media posts, he has questioned Mr. Rogan’s silence and accused several high-ranking officials, including Mr. Orban’s son-in-law Istvan Tiborcz, of being power-hungry and corrupt. Denouncing the Orban regime, he claimed, “I do not want to be part of a system for a minute longer where the real culprits hide behind women’s skirts,” adding that the regime was “a political product to conceal the operation of the power factory and to acquire enormous wealth.”
EU elections in mind?
With the twin ousters, Mr. Orban seems to be refocusing his party’s efforts on the European Parliament elections in June. According to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), with the rise in right-wing leaders across Europe, Fidesz is expected to retain a majority of the 21 seats in the European Parliament while the Opposition is likely to settle for one or two seats.
By consolidating his power in the EU, Mr. Orban is hoping that anti-EU groups will gain more votes, allowing him to push his pro-Russia agenda and obstruct EU sanctions against Moscow. He had also single-handedly delayed EU’s €50 billion aid to Ukraine before backtracking in February, and is holding up Sweden’s bid to join the military bloc NATO. Mr. Orban has batted for closer ties with Russia and China and projected Hungary as a ‘bridge’ between the East and the West, rather than being a faithful member of the European bloc.
As per BIRN estimates, groupings like the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), with a fading liberal Renew Europe, are set to retain power.
Mr. Orban’s party Fidesz, which was part of EPP till 2020, is currently part of the non-aligned group Non-Inscrits, which is barred from holding office and granted limited speaking time. BIRN claims that Mr. Orban is hoping for a strong shift to the right in the EU (several European nations have elected right-wing governments) and may join the far-right Identity and Democracy group or the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament.
Moreover, Hungary will also hold the rotating presidency of the EU Council from July 1 to end of 2024, allowing Mr. Orban to spearhead the bloc’s policy-making process for six months. With Hungary being deemed an ‘elected autocracy’ by EU, and considering Mr. Orban’s strong anti-EU views, several member nations have questioned his ability to chair the council democratically.
Despite Mr. Orban’s efforts to douse the domestic fire, hundreds of protestors took to the streets in Budapest on February 15, demanding his resignation over the pardon.
In response, Mr. Orban made a statement at his annual state address inside the Castle Garden building, where only pro-government media were allowed. Promising a new package of laws, he informed that the government would also review staff appointments at state orphanages, where 7,000 children live, according to a BBC report. He has also relented on Sweden’s NATO membership, urging party MPs to elect a President soon to facilitate green-lighting Sweden’s NATO entry on February 26.
However, calls for his resignation remain strong among the people, signalling no end to Mr. Orban’s biggest political crisis till date.
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