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Hungary: Will child abuse scandal bring down Viktor Orban?

February 21, 2024

The furor over a presidential pardon granted to a man who helped to cover up child sex abuse isn't going away. But public outrage won't necessarily oust Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Ungarn Proteste
Protesters took to the streets after the resignation of the country's President Katalin Novak earlier this monthImage: Bernadett Szabo/REUTERS

Each year, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban gives speeches that are eagerly awaited by his supporters. Every February, Orban takes stock of the previous year and announces the kick-off of the new political season.

The occasion is usually marked by a triumphant tone on past achievements and combative pronouncements of new iniatives. This year was different. The hotly anticipated event was overshadowed by scandal.

President Katalin Novak resigned earlier in February after pardoning a man who had helped to cover up child abuse. As a result, Orban started his address with the following sentence: "The year 2024 could not have started any worse." The speech was tired, uninspired and unstructured — one of the weakest Orban has given since taking office in 2010.

It was not only an expression of the fact that the abuse affair has clearly affected Hungary's prime minister in recent weeks, but also a sign of the general stagnation in Orban's system.

In the shadow of scandal

Katalin Novak, a long-time Orban loyalist, was not the only one to resign in the wake of the abuse scandal. Former Justice Minister Judit Varga, more recently the leading candidate of Orban's Fidesz party in the EU election campaign, also withdrew from political life.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers a speech
In the shadow of scandal, Orban's "State of Hungary" speech struck a different tone this yearImage: Szilard Koszticsak/MTI/AP/picture alliance

The outpouring of public feeling was triggered by the pardoning of a man named Endre K last year. He had been convicted of helping his superior, the director of an orphanage, to cover up the systematic, serious sexual abuse of children in at least one case.

The clemency became publicly known at the start of this year by chance. The pardon certificate was included in publicly accessible documents relating to appeal proceedings involving Endre K.

Public outrage over the case reached a level rarely seen in Hungary. Orban has made the protection of children a central pillar of his anti-LGBTQ policies in recent years. The prime minister frequently equates homosexuality with pedophilia, the term commonly used in Hungary for child sex abuse.

Mass protests in Budapest

In the meantime, it emerged that one of Orban's closest confidantes, the Calvinist spiritual figure and former Human Resources Minister Zoltan Balog, had advocated for Endre K's pardon.

Balog, a bishop since 2021, had initially refused to resign from his position as President of the Synod of the Hungarian Reformed Church. But in the run-up to an exceptionally large protest in Budapest in mid-February, Balog finally capitulated.

The rally was one of the largest demonstrations against the Orban government since 2010. According to some estimates up to 150,000 people gathered in Budapest.

Orban did not address this protest or the details of the abuse affair in his speech. He blamed the former president alone for the situation with a concise explanation: Her office embodied the unity of the nation, but Novak had been unable to maintain this unity due to the outrage resulting from the pardon she had issued. Her resignation was therefore unavoidable.

Hungarian President Katalin Novak at a press conference
Former President Katalin Novak was forced to resign over the scandalImage: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

In the course of his speech, Orban spoke at length about the opportunities available to Hungary if it invested heavily in the development of renewable energies.

This was followed by the usual side-swipes at the European Union, "Brussels bureaucrats" and "LGBTQ activists" who allegedly want to destroy Hungary's traditional family model.

Orban also repeated his usual narrative on the Russian war against Ukraine: the European Union had thrown itself "headfirst" into the "Slavic fratricidal conflict," and Hungary was the only representative of peace in Europe.

Orban on the backfoot

While the Hungarian Prime Minister does seem to be on the backfoot for now, the abuse scandal might not have much long-term impact on him. The current wave of protests expresses moral outrage, but the organizers and participants have no political program and for now no intention to organize into a movement or party.

People stage a protest, at Heroes' Square in Budapes
Large anti-government protests are unusual in HungaryImage: Denes Erdos/AP Photo/picture alliance

The current opposition parties have little more to say than moral outrage over the moral double standards of Orban's government.

For Hungarian lawyer and well-known child rights expert Szilvia Gyurko, the victims of the long-standing propaganda and the current debate are first and foremost children themselves.

"It would be an important step if the concept of child abuse and pedophilia would no longer be used to stigmatize one other in the political arena," Gyurko told DW. 

This article was adapted from German.

Hungary pardon scandal tests PM Viktor Orban's hold on power

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Keno Verseck Editor, writer and reporter