Hungarian President Katalin Novák Resigns – The Full Story Behind the Pardon Scandal

Unraveling the controversy: from presidential pardon to political fallout

11 February 2024

Iván László Nagy

Marcin Król Fellow

Viktor Orbán lost another president to public embarrassment. In 2012, President Pál Schmitt resigned following a plagiarism scandal. Katalin Novák’s resignation, however, is a lot more about Orbán than about her. We have summarised the details of one of the most turbulent weeks in modern Hungarian politics.

The resignation of Katalin Novák: a timeline of events

On 10 February, Hungarian President Katalin Novák resigned in a televised speech.

The decision followed a disastrous week for her, Fidesz and Viktor Orbán.

On 2 February, Hungarian media outlets received a Supreme Court judgement, which revealed that in April 2023, Novák gave a presidential pardon to a certain Endre K., a convicted paedophile accomplice.

Due to escalating political pressure, the president cut short her state visit to Qatar the following week. She returned promptly to Budapest to communicate her resignation to the nation.

However, in Hungary, one of the justice minister’s duties is to present pardon applications and endorse the president’s decisions. At the time of the contentious pardon, Judit Varga was the justice minister, though she stepped down last year, well before any news of the scandal broke. Varga was a potential leader for Fidesz’s European Parliament ticket for the June election but has now declared her withdrawal from all political roles.

The role of the Hungarian President: understanding the power to pardon

The role of the president in Hungary has always been a symbolic one.

The parliament grants the “official” head of state a 5-year term, which can only be renewed once. Their principal legal responsibility is to approve and formalise the laws that the chamber passes. They bear no practical veto power: they can send legislation back to the House or ask the constitutional court for a review.

On paper, they are also the head of the army and reside in Sándor Palace – the official presidential suite in the Buda castle, right next to the old court theatre, where Viktor Orbán has been living since 2019.

Amongst the many other minor roles of the president, there is the right to clemency: a decision prepared and reviewed by the minister of justice, the head of state can end ongoing trials and shorten or terminate prison sentences.

Katalin Novák: a profile of Hungary’s controversial president

Katalin Novák was a leading figure in Fidesz’s family-first political platform as one of the loudest fighters against child abuse.

Since Orbán took power in 2010, she has filled several government roles. She primarily served as a ministerial adviser until 2014, then as the secretary of state for family and youth until 2020.

She was also the vice-chair of Fidesz from 2017 to 2021. She served as the family minister until the end of 2021, when Fidesz nominated her as the president.

She replaced János Áder, whose 5+5 year mandate ended in 2022. While Áder was a silent executor from the government’s perspective, Novák’s exposure in the new role only increased.

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As Orbán’s international relations grew increasingly adversarial, Novák played the good cop, a younger woman representing the government’s core issues less violently and making grand gestures, such as visiting Kyiv and giving an interview to an independent news outlet.

In office, she portrayed herself primarily as a mother in the media, and most of her speeches revolved around family issues. In 2020, she explained that women should not necessarily compete with men, expect to fill the same roles and earn the same wage as them, as their sense of fulfilment shall come from being able to care for others. Such conservative views on gender roles and her anti-LGBTQI+ comments damaged her reputation both as minister for family affairs and the president.

The Pardon That Shook Hungary: Who is Endre K.?

In September 2019, János V., the former director of a foster home in Bicske, a town 30 kilometres away from Budapest, was sentenced to 8 years in prison for sexually abusing minors in his institution. According to the victims’ testimonies, he continuously used his power to force young boys to engage in sexual acts with him for almost a decade.

It was not until 2016 that the police were first notified of János V.’s crimes following the suicide of one of his victims. Another child also notified social services, who promptly took this child out of the foster home, but the child’s cousin – his only known relative – also lived and stayed in the institution.

After János V. was dismissed, he used his influence to contact the victim’s cousin in order to convince the victim to return to the foster home. But János V. had one condition: by returning, the child would need to withdraw his testimony against the director.

János V. asked his deputy, Endre K., to write a testimony in the name of the victim, claiming he made up the sexual allegations under the influence of drugs and planned for the victim to sign it. Endre K. did so despite being fully aware of the initial concern.

The child never signed the document, and the cases of sexual abuse went to court where both János V. and Endre K. were convicted. The deputy received a sentence of three years and four months for attempted coercion.

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His sentence had less than a year left when the Pope arrived in Hungary on 27 April 2023. Yet, without explanation, President Katalin Novák pardoned 22 convicts to celebrate the church leader’s visit. Endre K. was one of them.

However, Novák took more than one controversial decision at the time. On the same day, she also allowed the release of György Budaházy, a far-right cult hero and his accomplices, who were sentenced to prison for attempted terrorist activities against Social Democratic and Liberal lawmakers from 2007 to 2009.

Novák also had an issue with the quantity, not just the quality: In 2023, she pardoned 40 people out of 446 who applied while also pardoning 17 people in the seven months of 2022 when she was in charge.

The unexplained decision: Katalin Novák’s presidential pardon

How did she explain the decision? She did not.

Presidential pardons are loosely regulated in Hungary, which is at the heart of the scandal. We do not know who suggested Endre K. to be pardoned; we do not know how it went through the hands of Novák and Varga (twice), and we do not understand why.

Legally, President Novák did not have to explain her decision – or even publish it. The story only broke because Endre K. lost an appeal at the Supreme Court, but the decision never came into effect as Novák pardoned him. His clemency never would have been made public had it not been published in an official court document.

Technically, Novák did not resign because she pardoned a paedophile accomplice – she left almost a year after the pardon, but only because it came to light. And as the presidential office is only obliged to tell how many people were pardoned, not whom; there are still dozens of unknown cases.

In her resignation speech, she explained that she granted the pardon “in the belief that the convicted did not take advantage of the vulnerability of the children entrusted to his care.” She admitted that she had made a mistake. You may read the full speech here.

The Fallout: how Orbán and Fidesz responded to the scandal

For the first time in many years, the government needed a clear-cut strategy to tackle a crisis. The communication effort had three distinguishable phases. So what happened initially?

Like any other scandal, the government and its media outlets kept a low profile for as long as possible. No prominent Fidesz politicians commented on the issue, and those who did, explained it as a political attack by the left.

The turning point: when the story broke, and public opinion shifted

The story broke last Friday and quickly snowballed into an enormous scandal, with independent journalists highlighting Novák’s and Varga’s role in the clemency decision. They found out more and more about Endre K., the convicted paedophile accomplice, including some of his ties to Fidesz’s circles.

More importantly, what made it impossible for Fidesz to ignore was the issue at its core: the sexual abuse of minors.

For the past several years, the government has been promoting a so-called “child protection” scheme, which is a powerful campaign against not only paedophilia but also LGBTQI+ people; it has been arguably the most successful political tool for the government. Consequently, the Hungarian people, especially in Fidesz’s camp, have become extremely sensitive to the question of children. Thus, a scandal which essentially boiled down to “the president pardoning a paedophile” was inevitable to reach this audience.

As Novák’s reputation started to take a hit even amongst their supporters, Orbán had to make the first move. Pollsters began phoning nationwide to monitor “whether people have heard of the clemency scandal” and “whether Katalin Novák should resign.”

On Thursday, in a concise video message on Facebook, the Prime Minister announced a constitutional amendment which makes it impossible to pardon people who were convicted for any form of abuse against children.

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Although he did not mention Novák’s name, the message was clear and humiliating, and the following responses determined how the president should act. On Friday and Saturday, a plethora of Fidesz politicians and pro-government commentators started to demand an explanation from Novák, and although nobody called on her to resign, the constant reiteration of Orbán’s message “no mercy for paedophiles” left no air for her to breathe.

The aftermath: the resignation of Novák and Varga and the counter-attack

When Novák resigned, a new, meticulously engineered chapter began: the counter-attack.

Although the government has been quiet, pro-Fidesz media has started echoing a univocal message: “While Novák and Varga resigned for their mistakes, left-wing politicians would never resign for their sins.”

The scapegoat is yet again the leader of the strongest opposition party and ex-Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány. The propaganda machine is attempting to take a moral high ground, explaining that it is only the political right where actions have consequences, and with Novák and Varga having resigned, it is “time to move on”.

What makes this significant?

Viktor Orbán has let go of the most powerful women in Fidesz over the past ten years to preserve his legacy.

Beyond the confines of state media, it is evident that such a contentious decision could scarcely occur without Orbán being aware of it – and he promptly determined that Novák and Varga would take the fall.

It did not even matter that a child abuse case was in the centre – all that mattered was reputation. Pollsters did not enquire about the nature of the story; they asked who was to blame to find out which outcome was best for Fidesz rather than the Hungarian society – more specifically, the Hungarian children.

It portrays a political machine enchanted by approval ratings. It draws a gruesome picture of a Janus-faced regime that pardoned a paedophile accomplice amidst its vehement child protection campaign.

How much will this story hurt Fidesz and Viktor Orbán?

A lot, but nowhere near fatally.

The scandal could have decimated the number of “unsure” Fidesz voters, many of whom supported them for their family-oriented politics, which lost much of its credibility this week. However, the counter-attack shall work as planned for the hardcore fanbase, which, on its own, is large enough for a parliamentary majority. The following general elections will be held in 2026; this scandal will have little to no effect by then.

A lot depends on the opposition. Fidesz’s lead in the polls is not due to its popularity but the unpopularity of its alternatives. At present, disillusionment with political parties is at an all-time high. If leveraged correctly, this scandal could re-energise these disenchanted individuals. Fidesz has faced many scandals in the past 14 years, and the opposition has never been able to capitalise on them.

Succession is also problematic as the presidential seat looks less comfortable across the regime. Right now, rumours revolve around some well-known, reasonably moderate, middle-aged Fidesz politicians with scandal-free backgrounds.

Orbán needs to pick wisely because two out of his three nominees failed and because he could turn a crisis into long-term safety with the right person. If a newly elected president stays in power for their 10-year tenure, they must leave office in 2034.

If Fidesz were to lose in 2030, the new government would face the same challenges Donald Tusk is currently facing in Poland.

Lastly, it is yet another blow to Orbán’s European reputation. The non-stop scrutiny of the government will only get more challenging as the elections and the Hungarian presidency approaches. A paedophilia scandal would be hard to swallow by conservatives Giorgia Meloni, Jaroslaw Kaczynski or Marine Le Pen, whom Orbán is desperate to enchant to find a new political home for Fidesz.

Photo: collage from official images of the Hungarian government and the February EC meeting

 

Iván László Nagy

Marcin Król Fellow

Marcin Król Fellow. Ivan Laszlo Nagy is a 23-year-old Budapest-based political journalist, writing for a leading independent Hungarian news site, hvg.hu. As a UK graduate, his academic research about the communication techniques of populist regimes transformed into critical reporting about global democracy, with a special focus on quasi-authoritarian political flows in the West and in Hungary. His work as a reporter, analyst and commentator revolves around understanding the dynamics of societies oppressed by modern semi-dictators and working out ways for meaningful civic action within them, with special emphasis on mobilising young people for democratic action.

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