By Edit Inotai
The resignation of Katalin Novak over a child abuse pardon case sparks speculation over whether Orban can control the fallout or it’s the beginning of a political crisis for the system the PM has built over the last 14 years.
Katalin Novak, Hungary’s first female president, had to cut short her official trip to Qatar and return to Budapest on Saturday as a political crisis she had, unwittingly, set in motion with a presidential pardon began to spiral.
A few hours after landing, she resigned her post in an emotional televised address, admitting that she had made a mistake and accepting the political consequences.
“I made a decision to grant a pardon last April believing that the convict did not abuse the vulnerability of children whom he had overseen,” she said. “I made a mistake. I apologise to those I have hurt and to any victims who may have felt that I did not stand by them. I resign as president of the republic.”
There is little doubt among political observers in Hungary that Novak was pushed rather than jumped. But other questions surrounding the scandal behind her resignation, such as who advocated for the individual in question to receive a pardon and the long-term repercussions of it for the government of Viktor Orban, remain unclear.
It is also proof that a critical media still exists in some form in Hungary and, occasionally, can exert pressure on the government.
In April 2023, on the occasion of the Pope’s three-day visit to Hungary, Novak granted a presidential pardon to 27 people, including a deputy school director who helped cover up a series of child abuse cases at an orphanage near Budapest. The director of the orphanage regularly abused boys aged between 10 and 18, and his deputy, named in independent media as Endre Konya, was found guilty of pressuring pupils to withdraw their testimonies. He was sentenced to three years and four months in prison, and had nine months left to serve when Novak pardoned him.
News of the presidential pardon – which was not publicised earlier, as under the law the president does not name the subjects of her pardons – was first revealed on February 2 by critical news site 444.hu and spread like wildfire in the media, to the point where the government could no longer ignore it.
Opposition politicians called for the president’s resignation, hundreds demonstrated in front of Novak’s office, and even pro-government pundits urged the president to explain her controversial decisions. Finally, Prime Minister Viktor Orban had to step in by personally tabling a constitutional amendment that would ban presidential pardons for anyone involved in crimes against children.
But by the end of last week, it was clear that wasn’t enough and Novak could not be saved. The former justice minister, Judit Varga, who countersigned the presidential pardon and was expected to lead the Fidesz list for the European Parliament elections in June, also resigned and announced she was withdrawing from public life.
It was a double blow for the government and the entire governing elite. Novak and Varga, both mothers of three, were rising stars of the national-populist Fidesz party and the only women to hold high office in Orban’s government. Now their political careers are finished.
“This case could have shaken the whole government,” Andrea Szabo, director of the Institute of Political Science, told BIRN on Sunday. “The most important value of Hungarian society, regardless of political ideology, is children. It was a huge blow for the governing elite whose narrative was based on the accusation that ‘paedophilia is only possible on the left’.”
Zoltan Kiszelly, director of the government-close Szazadveg Foundation, also feared a tsunami coming. “The presidential pardon was a bad decision that was harmful to the whole country and to the political community of Orban,” he told BIRN. “Novak was the face of the country’s highly successful child and family protection policies, which have now come under threat. It enraged the whole society.”
‘Hiding behind women’s skirts’
Government-friendly analysts are already running with a narrative about the “responsible government” that is accountable for its actions, and hope the case is now closed. Prime Minister Orban has so far not commented on the resignations.
“As far as crisis communication is concerned, the government did a brilliant job,” Szabo admits, but warns the case could reinforce Orban’s inherent mistrust of female politicians.
Kiszelly believes the “show is over”, as the resignations will reassure the right-wing part of the electorate.
The opposition, however, is in full swing, demanding direct presidential elections and full transparency about who was involved in the presidential pardon. There is speculation that the pardoned man had good connections with the government and that someone – probably several – could have intervened on his behalf.
Speculation was further fuelled by the ex-husband of former justice minister Varga, Peter Magyar, who accused the government of “hiding behind women’s skirts” and suggested that others, perhaps higher up, were involved.
Magyar, who has held several state jobs and is known for his conservative views, resigned from all his posts in protest and personally attacked Orban’s communications minister, Antal Rogan, and others, highlighting that something is rotten in the system. This is a highly unusual turn of events among the Hungary’s national-populist elite and reveals tensions within the system.
“But lonely heroes rarely succeed in Hungary,” warns Szabo.
The scandal came at the worst possible time for the government, just as Orban and Fidesz were preparing for the European and local elections in June. Novak functioned well as the friendly face of Hungary, pushing for Sweden’s NATO membership and being one of the first top Hungarian politicians to visit Ukraine after the Russian invasion. Even so, she was a loyal Fidesz servant who did not question government decisions and even signed the controversial sovereignty protection bill into law.
Now Orban must find a suitable replacement who can take office in 30 days. There are rumours Defence Minister Kristof Szalay-Bobrovniczky, one of Hungary’s richest politicians and a former ambassador to the UK, could be a possible successor.
Presidents in Hungary have largely ceremonial powers and are elected by parliament on the nomination of the majority. Orban has had little luck with his presidents: Novak is the second in the last 14 years to have her presidential term cut short. Pal Schmitt, a former Olympic champion turned diplomat, was forced to resign in a plagiarism scandal in 2012, just 20 months after being elected. Only one of his nominees, Janos Ader, was able to complete a full five-year term, serving two.