Won’t somebody please think of the children!? The evergreen far-right façade of protecting kids while pardoning paedophiles in Hungary.

, by Mattia Fontana

Won't somebody please think of the children!? The evergreen far-right façade of protecting kids while pardoning paedophiles in Hungary.
Election stands for the ruling party, Budapest, Elekes Andor, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/license...> , via Wikimedia Commons

Viktor Orbán’s conservative and traditionalist governing party has always distinguished itself at home and in Europe as close to traditional families and contrary to the so-called homosexual propaganda, as it would affect children negatively. The news that the Hungarian Head of state had pardoned a man guilty of covering up sex crimes against children highlights the hypocrisy of those who claim to care about children but just target minorities (such as queer people) for political gain and electoral purposes.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s close supporter, the president of Hungary Katalin Novák, announced her resignation in a televised statement on February 10. Judit Varga, the former Justice Minister who was considered Fidesz’s front-runner for the European Parliament, also declared her intention to leave politics. But how did we arrive at this surprising turn of events?

Novák had chosen to bestow the grace on twenty-two individuals in April 2023, ahead of Pope Francis’s arrival in the city capital: Minister Varga subsequently confirmed this decision, but the recipients’ identities were kept a secret at the time.

In early February 2024, the independent newspaper 444.hu reported that one of these individuals was Endre Kónya, the deputy director of the Bicske orphanage, who had assisted in covering up his boss’s sexual abuses of several minors entrusted to them between 2004 and 2016. The two had been sentenced to various years in prison, and the proceedings revealed that the deputy director had coerced the minors into not testifying about the abuses they had endured.

The revelation of the names of those who had been granted the presidential pardon the previous year immediately sparked pressures from the opposition and also some street protests in Budapest; to stem the political fallout from the scandal, the Fidesz party introduced a constitutional amendment in the Parliament at the start of February that would have denied the President the ability to pardon those found guilty of crimes against children; Novák even supported this move, saying she had never signed a pardon in any case involving children.

However, the controversy was growing even among Fidesz’s higher ranks: and while the President was in Qatar for the Handball World Cup, more than a thousand protestors gathered in front of the presidential palace, holding banners calling for the President’s resignation. Three presidential council members even resigned from their positions.

Novak’s resignation came upon her return to Budapest with a televised statement, acknowledging that she had made a mistake: “I apologize to those I have hurt and to all the victims who may have had the impression that I did not support them”, she added, “I am, was and will remain in favour of the protection of children and families”.

Shortly after, former Justice Minister Judit Varga declared her “retreat from public life”, leaving both her roles as Member of the Hungarian National Assembly and Fidesz’s leading candidate for the European elections: Varga had actually stepped down from her role as Minister of Justice in order to lead the party in the June 2024 European elections.

What is shocking about this case is the political significance of the names involved: as the first female Head of state in Hungary, Novák was elected in March 2022 and had a Christian-conservative profile, consistently with Viktor Orbán’s party’s official stance, which has repeatedly positioned itself as a champion of the “traditional family” and “child protection” to conceal its nationalist and autocratic policies. In fact, in 2021, Novák even supported changes to the Hungarian legislation in a way that it equated homosexuality and paedophilia, ostensibly to combat child abuse (in fact an intervention inspired by Putin’s legislation on “queer propaganda”). It is worth noting that Novák also vetoed a bill that would have allowed anonymous reports on same-sex couples.

It was also anticipated that Novák would have held the office of President until 2027, with the prospect of a second term: indeed, with more than 60% of the preferences, she was among Hungary’s most well-liked politicians before the controversy.

Judith Varga was also a rapidly ascending figure in the Hungarian nationalist scene; and it should be remembered that Varga’s tenure in the Ministry of Justice was characterised by the approval of the legislation on homosexual propaganda and the disagreements with Brussels about the rule of law in Hungary, as well as disputes about the real democraticity of the elections.

Additionally, Zoltán Balog, the President of the Hungarian Reformed Church Synod, also resigned in the wake of the scandal: Zoltán Balog’s involvement in the pardon became apparent when a number of unaffiliated sources with ties to the government and the President’s office revealed that Balog, who has been Novák’s longtime mentor and advisor to the President, had a significant role in the case. These reports claim that Balog directly urged the President to pardon Endre Kónya.

In reference to the double resignation scandal, Hungarian Liberal MEP Anna Donath emphasized that “it was quick: first Novák, then Varga, but we know that no important decision can be taken in Hungary without Viktor Orbán’s approval. […] It’s his system; he ought to own up to what went wrong and explain it”, suggesting that the pardon of Endre Kónya could be linked directly to Orbán.

Another unexpected turn of events was Péter Magyar’s public stance, that caused a great deal of shock on social media: ex-husband of Judit Varga, a powerful businessman and lawyer, due to his political connections Péter Magyar had been granted prestigious positions in Hungarian private and public companies over the years. In an extensive interview with Partizán, which has gathered 2.3 million views so far, he declared his intention to resign from all positions in public companies, accusing the system of hiding “behind women’s skirts” and criticizing a massive propaganda apparatus headed by Antal Rogán, the head of Orbán’s cabinet. The way President Novák was attacked by the media was strongly stigmatized by Magyar, who claimed that the incident disqualified two formidable contenders from the race for Orbán’s succession, and Magyar pointed out the considerable dissatisfaction within the Fidesz base regarding the growing concentration of wealth and media in the country.

These events might become one of the largest obstacles to Orbán’s political ambitions. At the same time, though, Orbán could potentially take advantage of the double resignations for two reasons at least: firstly, Fidesz representatives are arguing that even if the scandal did hit the governing party, resignations followed right away, within a week; secondly, in an environment where the opposition is currently trying, and failing, to emphasize the dangers of a Putin-style drift of the country and the absence of media pluralism, the fact that an investigation of an online newspaper had the power to topple two significant names of the political hierarchy could call into question the veracity of this line of reasoning.

Furthermore, rather than being a sign of “regime change”, Fidesz’s internal disagreements are more likely to be seen as a sign of the start of the struggle for Orbán’s succession in the current situation, where it is unclear when the Hungarian Prime Minister will choose to stand down.

Finally, after a much-delayed vote on ratifying the protocol of Sweden’s NATO accession, the National Assembly in Budapest named Tamas Sulyok, the President of the Constitutional Court, as the new Hungarian Head of State on February 26. As a result, as of March 5, Hungary has a new President of the Republic: the opposition, however, criticized Sulyok’s appointment because he lacks political experience and because, despite the role being purely ceremonial, the demands of the street protest for the direct election of the President have been left unheard. The Fidesz-led government coalition, with two-thirds of the Members of Parliament, readily yielded to Sulyok’s appointment.

In any case, even the most recent surveys conducted in Hungary suggest that Fidesz will continue to hold a dominant position in Hungarian politics. In the last elections for the European Parliament, they lost several sits but remained the largest party: with the opposition struggling to gain traction, the leadership of Fidesz could further influence Hungary’s political direction and position on the European stage, while the opposition, despite a political assist provided by some of the most prominent names of Orban’s party, is still unable to present a united and credible challenge to Fidesz’s domination and to capitalize on the fruits of this scandal, which may not have shown all of its outcomes yet.

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