Hungary's President Pal Schmitt has stepped down a week after he was stripped of his 1992 doctorate title for plagiarism. His plans for the future: he wants to write a new dissertation.
An inglorious departure: the still-president and former two-time fencing Olympic champion stood complaining about unfair and unjustified attacks against his person for almost a quarter of an hour. He denounced the opposition, which had labeled him a fraud, thief and liar, and accused unnamed "traitors" of spreading the charges against him abroad.
Hungary, according to Pal Schmitt, had been internationally disparaged, its highest representative "dishonored." He defended his doctoral thesis and announced that he'd bring a case challenging the "illegal and unethical" annulment of his doctoral degree to court, if necessary.
It was only toward the very end of his speech that a presidential-sounding sentence emerged: "In this situation, since my personal affairs seem rather to divide than unite my beloved nation, I feel the duty to end my service and resign from my presidential mandate."
Plagiarized a Bulgarian and a German
It was the end of a scandal that had dragged on for three long months. "Logic has finally prevailed over irrationality," an editorial writer commented in Hungary's popular news portal index.hu: "That's good news."
In early January, reporters for Hungary's renowned weekly Heti Világgazdaság (Weekly World Economy) discovered that Pal Schmitt had copied, word-for-word, large passages of his 1992 thesis on the history of the Olympic Games from a text written in 1987 by the late Bulgarian sports expert Nikolai Georgiev; in fact, 80 pages of Schmitt's 215-page thesis appear to have been plagiarized.
The news portal also discovered some passages were taken, also word-for-word, from a study by German professor Klaus Heinemann.
Although Schmitt vehemently denied the allegations from the start, Budapest's Semmelweis University investigated the charges. The university presented its findings last week, just as Pal Schmitt was named 'honor student' by South Korea's Hankuk University - an ironic coincidence.
197 of Schmitt's 215-page dissertation were plagiarized, the university committee said, but concluded that Schmitt wasn't to blame. The university should have never accepted the thesis, the committee said, and placed the blame on the panel at the sports university that awarded the academic title at the time.
All the same, Semmelweis University stripped the president of his doctorate on March 29.
Schmitt protested the decision for days. Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban repeatedly backed his close ally Schmitt, saying the president is "inviolable." But the ruling Fidesz party didn't seem to share that sentiment, instead calling for the president's resignation. Magyar Nemzet newspaper chimed in the calls for Schmitt to quit: "Mr. President, think again! The longer it takes, the worse it will be for you and us."
Setback for Orban
The domestic back-and-forth over Schmitt's resignation has political reasons, too. Post-communist Hungary has seen quite a few conflicts between presidents and governments. Hungary's president is merely a figurehead who represents his country and has no political function - but he has the power to block new legislation by refusing to sign it. That tactic was employed by Hungary's first post-communist president, Árpád Göncz, as a means to ensure his country's democratic development. László Sólyom, Schmitt's immediate predecessor, was also more of a non-conformist president.
In 2010, Viktor Orban nominated Pal Schmitt for the presidency largely because Schmitt was regarded as the Prime Minister's loyal follower. Indeed, Schmitt unflinchingly signed hundreds of controversial bills into law, including legislation many Hungarian legal experts criticize as weakening democratic institutions and undermining the state.
Schmitt, the target of much ridicule by the local press for his problems with Hungarian spelling, now wants to write a new dissertation.
He told Hungary's parliament he would prove that even at the age of 70, he was still in a position to do so. To standing ovations by members of the ruling Fidesz party, Schmitt said his next thesis would focus on the links between environmental protection and sports.
Author: Keno Verseck / db
Editor: Simon Bone