Hungary President Quits After Contested Pardon Sparks Furor

(Bloomberg) -- Hungary’s first female president resigned after a controversial pardon she granted in a pedophilia case threatened to taint Prime Minister Viktor Orban months before local and European elections.

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Katalin Novak, a rare woman in high office in Hungary after Orban tapped her for the largely ceremonial role in 2022, announced she was quitting in a televised speech on Saturday. She apologized for her pardon, saying it had been a mistake.

“As a Hungarian person I’d expect the president not to make mistakes or if they do, then they must face those they are accountable to, taking responsibility,” Novak said.

Her speedy resignation, just over a week after the first report of her clemency emerged, may limit the political damage to Orban ahead of European Parliament and municipal elections that Hungary plans to hold simultaneously in June.

Orban’s Fidesz party is by far the most popular political group in Hungary and the nationalist prime minister maintains a tight grip on power. But the ruling party has started to gauge the scandal’s impact on public opinion before the votes, where Orban is preparing to gain control of the opposition’s last strongholds like Budapest, and to show strength as one of the leaders of Europe’s resurgent far-right movement.

Another Resignation

Judit Varga, Orban’s former justice minister who had certified Novak’s pardon, also said on Saturday that she’d no longer helm the Fidesz party list for European Parliament elections, in another sign that the prime minister was moving swiftly to stem any political hemorrhaging.

Novak last year pardoned the deputy director of a children’s home who had coerced children to withdraw testimonies against his boss, who had sexually abused them. News of the clemency was first reported in early February and caused an immediate furor, prompting opposition calls for Novak to quit and triggering the resignations of some presidential advisers.

The pardon tarnished Novak’s self-styled image as well as that of the Orban government as a defender of family values. In an effort to limit political damage, Orban on Thursday submitted a constitutional amendment that would bar the president from issuing pardons involving crimes against children.

A 46-year-old mother of three, Novak channeled her dual roles as a homemaker and president, regularly posting photos on social media showing her baking or cleaning windows while juggling the duties of president. She previously served as a minister in charge of family policy.

Orban Ally

As head of state, she continued in the mold of her predecessors since Orban returned to power in 2010, rarely opposing the authoritarian-leaning premier’s controversial policies, which has included a crackdown on LGBTQ rights and the creation of a new institution aimed at rolling back foreign influence in Hungary.

Novak proved a useful ally for Orban, who sometimes used her for outreach to leaders. As a friend of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni before either of them took high office, Novak would help the two premiers strike up a relationship that proved pivotal earlier this month in convincing the Hungarian leader to lift his veto over €50 billion in EU aid to Ukraine.

Despite her loyalty to Orban — she’s sported earrings with Orban’s initials before becoming president - she did make some effort to craft a more conciliatory foreign policy, including with Ukraine. Orban’s ministers quickly shut down that attempt following her meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy last year, saying she had no policy role.

Novak has made controversial pardons before, including on the eve of Pope Francis’s visit to Budapest last year when she granted clemency to a far-right activist who had been convicted of terrorism.

She is not the first president to go down in a scandal. Pal Schmitt, a former Olympic champion fencer whom Orban tapped for the job in 2010, quit after two years in office following revelations that he had plagiarized his doctoral thesis.

--With assistance from Veronika Gulyas.

(Updates with resignation of head of Orban’s European Parliament party list in sixth paragraph.)

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