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Viktor Orbán is Battling the Greatest Political Crisis of His Tenure

A scandal involving a pardon to a paedophile’s accomplice has already taken down Hungary’s former justice minister, President, and the head of the Hungarian Reformed Church

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban address the Texas CPAC in August 2022. Photo: ZUMA Press Inc/Alamy

In Budapest’s iconic Heroes Square on Friday 16 February, 150,000 people gathered to protest in solidarity with the victims of a child abuse scandal in an orphanage in the small town of Bicske. The protest was the largest since 2010 and was not organised by political parties or civil organisations but by YouTubers; a stark reminder of just how impactful the latest scandal in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has become, even among otherwise apolitical individuals.

On 2 February, the Hungarian liberal news site 444 published an article stating that Hungarian President Katalin Novák exercised her presidential pardon in the case of an individual named Endre K, who was sentenced to prison for attempting to cover up a paedophile scandal at an orphanage. The institution’s principal, János V, was sentenced to prison for sexually abusing children at the home. Endre K, the deputy principal, tried to protect his manager and forced children to retract their statements and lie that they had made up their allegations.

Presidential pardons are not public in Hungary, however as Endre K’s appeal at Hungary’s High Court was ongoing when he received the pardon, a sentence regarding it appeared in a document which was found by a lawyer while looking through court decisions.

The news sparked outrage and not just among opposition voters. The protection of children has been the number-one political message of Fidesz, Viktor Orbán’s governing party, for the past few years. President Novák herself was the face of this message, having previously been the Minister for Family Affairs. Novák’s meteoric rise to becoming Fidesz’s de-facto number two behind Orbán, her international connections, and her cautiously Atlanticist tone (Novák was much more pro-Ukraine in her public statements than the Prime Minister) made many think that she would be a likely successor after the current Prime Minister’s retirement, once her term as President ended.

To make matters worse, it was revealed that in accordance with Hungarian law, then Justice Minister Judit Varga must have signed off the pardon for it to come into effect, implicating the Government in the case as well. Varga was another rising star in Fidesz and was set to lead the party’s list in this year’s European Parliamentary Elections.

Hungarian media also found evidence that Endre K. had ties with Fidesz and connections within the Hungarian Reformed Church. He regularly organised wrestling trainings with a sports association founded by Győző Orbán, Viktor Orbán’s brother, and regularly took children in the orphanage to Puskás Akadémia Football Club, an organisation founded by Viktor Orbán and owned by Lőrinc Mészáros, an oligarch and Orbán’s childhood friend.

The scandal was not going away and Orbán himself published a short video on 8 February in which he announced he would initiate proceedings to modify the constitution so that pardons cannot be granted in cases of deliberate harm against children. After the statement many interpreted as throwing her under the bus, Novák’s position became untenable, and she cut short a state visit to resign two days later.

Novák admitted to her mistake and stated that she granted the pardon under the assumption that Endre K did not breach the trust of the children who he was responsible for, only raising further questions. Judit Varga also announced that she would resign as an MP, not lead Fidesz’s list during the European elections, and would retire from public life altogether.

A day later, Péter Magyar, Varga’s ex-husband also announced in a Facebook post that he would resign from all his state positions as he was fed up with the “real culprits hiding behind women’s skirts” and specifically targeted Antal Rogán, the minister responsible for Government communications. He also gave an interview to Partizán, Hungary’s most prominent independent politics-focused YouTube channel in which he stated that it is “not normal for a country to be owned by 3 families,” alluding to the unprecedented wealth accumulation of oligarchs close to the Hungarian government. He even named István Tiborcz, Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law.

Magyar also claimed that members of Government circles, most notably Rogán, were trying to influence the terms of his divorce with Varga with the use of state resources. Even before receiving English subtitles, the interview was seen by 2 million people, more than 20% of the entire Hungarian population.

The same day, a joint investigative report by Telex and Direkt36 found that Varga initially did not recommend granting the pardon to Endre K. The article’s sources also claimed that Varga signed off the pardon in the end once it returned to her from Novák without consulting Orbán, because she assumed it was “already decided at a higher level,” raising serious questions about the practical consequences of Orbán’s heavily authoritarian leadership style and the culture he has created in his Government.

The article also revealed that the former Minister for Human Resources and current Bishop and head of the Hungarian Reformed Church (the second largest church in Hungary) Zoltán Balog lobbied for granting the pardon to Endre K. Balog is considered to be a mentor and long-term ally of Novák and sources described the two as having an “extremely close personal relationship.”

Last Tuesday, 13 February, Balog was interviewed by the leaders of the Hungarian Reformed Church after which he announced that he had received the backing of 86% in a non-binding vote of confidence. He admitted that he had been in favour of the pardon based on the available information at the time and apologised, though notably, his apology was addressed to the Hungarian Reformed Church for damaging its reputation and not the victims of the scandal or the country as a whole. On Friday 16 February, he changed his mind and resigned from his position as the leader of the Church (though remains as a Bishop) after a series of attacks on him in government-affiliated newspapers.

What are the implications of the scandal, the scale of which Fidesz has never seen? The real danger for the government is that the scandal exactly contradicts the image it aims to project of itself, even in the eyes of Fidesz voters. Their core messaging about child protection, which the government’s propaganda apparatus has aimed to reinforce by consistently conflating paedophilia with progressives and the LGBT community, is weakened as now any time someone mentions child protection in the context of politics, the electorate could be reminded of a scandal which took place entirely among Fidesz’s ranks.

Losing Varga and Novák is also a huge blow for Fidesz in the long term as they were the most prominent and talented figures in the party within their own generation. Their departure reinforces the question marks regarding Fidesz’s ability to produce a competent group of successors once the current leadership retires.

Another problem for Fidesz is apparent from Péter Magyar’s willingness to come out and criticise the party so openly and question the amount of wealth Orbán’s son-in-law accumulated and the rate at which it transpired. His statements confirm rumours of factionalism within the party and a level of dissatisfaction so high that some are even willing to go public.

Though the crisis is certainly dealing a serious blow to his system and the wound is likely to remain a deep one, it is unlikely to directly threaten Viktor Orbán’s power. So far, Fidesz has managed to isolate the incident from the Prime Minister (whose Government insists that Orbán was not aware of the case until the media uncovered it) by allowing the public’s fury to target the three individuals who were directly involved with the pardoning.

During his annual address on Saturday 17 February, Orbán tried to continue distancing himself from the scandal by emphasising the responsibility of Novák and Varga. However, paradoxically, it was exactly his continuing refusal to apologise in the name of the Government that has created an environment where the matter is still not closed. In his speech, he also alluded once again to targetting the LGBT community in new legislation by conflating paedophilia and homosexuality in an attempt to retake control of the narrative about child protection in the country.

The scandal also has implications for Hungary outside the Government. After 14 years of Fidesz rule, the independent Hungarian media faces increasing obstacles and remains severely underfunded. In addition, it is also sometimes criticised by its readership, rightly or wrongly, for becoming too mundane or self-serving. However, the Hungarian media has done a first-class job in the past few weeks. Details of the scandal were uncovered step-by-step as part of a collective effort which virtually all independent outlets contributed to. The quality of the recent investigative and analytical work produced is a feat difficult to achieve, even in countries with much healthier media ecosystems and is worthy of the highest possible praise.

It has also become apparent that despite the Government’s media hegemony, issues the independent media covers can reach the entire Hungarian population. A poll by the Government-affiliated Nézőpont showed that 85% of Hungarians heard about the scandal despite the near-total initial silence of pro-Government media outlets.

The crisis is also a much-needed opportunity for the Hungarian opposition who were unable to capitalise on the record-high inflation that has faced Hungary for the past two years. Their core voters were woken up from their two-year-long apathy by the scandal and the less committed part of Fidesz’s electorate could now conceivably be turned off from showing up at the European and local elections this June.

However, it is uncertain if the opposition can profit from the situation more substantially. The speakers at Friday’s protest made clear their frustrations with existing opposition parties as well, echoing a widespread sentiment in the Hungarian public, who feel they have disappointed the electorate so often. Hungarians might be starting to understand that in the type of autocratic system they live in, it will not necessarily be the established opposition parties that bring salvation.

The speakers at the protest, especially the main organiser, comedian Edina Pottyondy, possessed rhetorical skills that surpassed those who came before them in the past 14 years, and managed to express the protesters’ genuine rage. Where this fury could be channelled remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: amidst the storm of its greatest-ever political crisis, Orbán’s system, the flagship of European illiberalism, is sailing on uncharted waters.

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