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Hungary’s president just resigned

And that’s the least interesting part of an evolving political scandal.

- February 14, 2024
Hungarian President Katalin Novák meets with Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary general, on November 8, 2023. On February 10, 2024, Novák resigned, following news that one of the people she had pardoned in April 2023 was accused of helping cover up sexual abuse allegations at a Hungarian state-run children’s home.
Hungarian President Katalin Novák meets with Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary general, Nov. 8, 2023 (cc) NATO photostream, via Flickr.

People in the United States used to reading about Hungary have likely become accustomed to two types of stories: those about Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán consolidating power, and those about Hungary pushing back against the E.U.’s pro-Ukraine foreign policy (including holding up NATO membership for Sweden).

But we’ve got something new for you now.

What just happened? 

On Saturday, Feb. 10, Hungarian President Katalin Novák resigned. Very shortly thereafter, the former minister of justice Judit Varga also resigned her seat as a deputy in parliament. 

Why did it happen? 

In April 2023, in advance of the Pope’s visit to Hungary, Novák had issued an unusually large number of pardons. In the past week, though, a reader shared a tip with the independent Hungarian news website 444.hu. One of the people granted a pardon – a deputy director for a state-run children’s home – had forced underaged boys at the home not to report instances of sexual abuse that they had suffered from the home’s director (who himself had been imprisoned for these acts of abuse). 

This information went viral on social media and even led to street protests. By the weekend the pressure had intensified to the point where both Novák, who issued the pardon, and Varga, who had countersigned as Hungary’s minister of justice, resigned.

Why might the scandal be significant? 

The big question here is whether the scandal will end up denting the popularity of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Hungary has a parliamentary system of government, so the real locus of power is in the hands of the prime minister and the government, not the president. However, Novák was a close ally of Orbán.

Of course, a scandal revolving around child abuse would be bad news for any government. However, these developments have the potential to be especially problematic for Orbán and his political party, Fidesz. As Georgetown professor Daniel Kelemen noted when I reached out to him for a comment:

Orbán’s autocratic government has presented itself as a defender of children. The fact that the president and justice minister – close allies of Orbán – were involved in pardoning a man convicted of covering up child sexual abuse in a state-run facility exposes his regime’s hypocrisy.

For Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, a further complication is that both Novák and Varga were popular members of the party’s top leadership. Varga, for instance, was poised to head Fidesz’s party list in the upcoming European parliamentary elections. Neither of these politicians will now be available for future political campaigns. And Novák and Varga were two of the only women in senior roles in the Fidesz government, thus leaving the party leadership now almost completely male.

In addition, Varga’s husband claims that she may have taken the fall for other senior leadership figures involved in the scandal. He has accused the government of “hiding behind women’s skirts.” None of this can be seen as good news for the current Fidesz government.

The power of an independent media

A notable feature of the story is the role of the media. As political scientist Gabor Toka of Central European University told me in an email, “the journalists and the independent press did a remarkably good job keeping the story in the headlines for a week.” 

This suggests that despite the many moves by Orbán over the years to install an “illiberal democracy” in Hungary that exerts control over the mass media, the opposition press still has the ability to challenge the government. And, as the events of the last week suggest, the media on occasion can have considerable influence over political developments.

Whether the scandal is now contained by the dual resignations of Novák and Varga or if it continues to cause problems for the Orbán government is worth watching in the coming weeks, especially if these lead to conflicts within Fidesz coming to the fore.

Note: Huge thanks to political scientists Ameni Mehrez and Gabor Toka of Central European University and Daniel Kelemen of Georgetown University for their prompt and thoughtful discussions.