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Hungary's Orban laments 'nightmare' pardon scandal

February 17, 2024

President Katalin Novak quit last week after pardoning a man convicted of covering up a child sexual abuse case. In his state of the nation address, PM Viktor Orban said the resignation was the "correct" thing to do.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers his annual state of the nation speech in Budapest, Hungary, on February 17, 2024
Orban made his first reference to the pardon scandal gripping his governmentImage: Szilard Koszticsak/MTI/AP/picture alliance

The resignation of Hungary's president over a child sexual abuse pardoning scandal was "correct, but a big loss" for the country, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said in his annual state of the nation address Saturday.

Orban told supporters that 2024 "could not have begun any worse" and that President Katalin Novak's resignation was a "nightmare" for the country.

Novak, an ally of Orban's, stepped down last week over a pardon she issued to a convict in a child sexual abuse case, which sparked widespread public outrage.

Ungarn Proteste
Orban was speaking the day after a large protest in BudapestImage: Denes Erdos/AP Photo/picture alliance

An independent news site reported that the president had granted clemency to a former deputy director of a children's home, who was jailed for three years in 2022 for helping to cover up his boss' sexual abuse of kids and adolescents.

Orban said that Novak had made a responsible decision in stepping down, saying, "Good people also make bad decisions."

The PM had not mentioned the scandal until Saturday, but a day earlier, his chief of staff Gergely Gulyas insisted Orban had not known about the pardon until last week.

Hungarian President resigns over child abuse pardon

Orban predicts Europe will shift further to right 

Orban said his government would emerge stronger from the scandal, focusing on the economy and on June's European Parliament elections, which he predicted should boost rightwing political forces in Europe and "bring change in Brussels."

"We would really like Donald Trump to return as President and ... make peace here in the eastern half of Europe," the longstanding Trump supporter said.

Orban also borrowed from one of Trump's popular slogans to describe his plans for Hungary's role as rotating presidency of the European Council, which begins in July.

"Make Europe great again!" he said. "MAGA there, MEGA here."

Orban's government has been accused by the European Union of rolling back democracy by curbing media freedom, the judiciary and LGBTQ rights. The EU has withheld billions in aid to Hungary.

Earlier this month, Orban — arguably the EU and NATO leader with the closest ties to Russia — U-turned on a threat to block €50 billion ($54 billion) in EU financial support to Ukraine, in a sign that ties between Brussels and Budapest were warming.

Hungary 'now ready' to ratify Sweden's NATO membership

As his speech continued, Orban said that Hungary's parliament was now in a position to ratify Sweden's NATO membership when it convenes for its new spring session later this month.

"It's good news that our dispute with Sweden will soon be settled," he told supporters, adding that he and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson had taken steps "to rebuild trust" between the two countries.

Hungary is the only NATO member not yet to have ratified Sweden's application to join the military alliance; it similarly stalled Finland's entry to the alliance.

Although it supports Stockholm in principle, Orban's ruling Fidesz party prolonged the process by asking Sweden to stop "vilifying" the Hungarian government, over accusations of taking an authoritarian turn.

Along with Finland, Sweden applied to join NATO in May 2022 in a historic shift in policy prompted by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Scandal protest draws tens of thousands

On the eve of Orban's speech, large crowds of Hungarians rallied in central Budapest against the presidential pardon scandal.

The demonstration, which saw tens of thousands of people take to the streets, was organized by popular personalities from the music and cultural scene and online influencers. 

"The Hungarian state has failed. There is no transparent, thorough and independent investigation to clarify responsibility," Edina Pottyondy, one of the organizing influencers, said in a fiery speech.

mm/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)