Hungary resignations leave Viktor Orban in biggest crisis yet

Hungarian President Katalin Novak delivering her speech in the Alexander Palace in Budapest, Hungary, 10 February 2024
Image caption,Katalin Novak resigned as president on Saturday, then the justice minister stood down as an MP

By Nick Thorpe

BBC News, Hungary

This has become the biggest threat to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s rule since he returned to power in 2010.

Hungary has been shaken by the sudden resignations of the two most popular and successful women in an otherwise strongly male-dominated governing party.

President Katalin Novak and former Justice Minister Judit Varga have both taken responsibility for the decision to grant clemency to Endre K, former deputy director of a state orphanage.

Endre K was jailed for persuading children to withdraw their testimony against the director of the orphanage for sexual abuse.

He was one of 25 people pardoned by the president during a visit by Pope Francis last year. But his name only became public on 2 February.

The issue has become deeply problematic for a government which has made protection of children and traditional family values the cornerstone of its policies.

Worst of all for Mr Orban and his party, the departures of the two women have been followed by an avalanche of allegations about the way he runs the country.

And this double resignation, coming amid increasing protests, has deprived Viktor Orban of two very different but essential allies.

  • Who is Viktor Orban, Hungarian PM with 14-year grip on power?

President Novak radiated a “mother of the nation” image, closely identified with popular policies to encourage couples to have more children. She also promoted a more inclusive, less aggressive style than the prime minister in her largely symbolic role as head of state.

The tough-talking Judit Varga had been due to lead the governing Fidesz party into battle against the “Brussels bureaucrats” in the European elections in June. Now she has resigned as an MP and withdrawn from public life.

Former Hungarian Minister of Justice Judit Varga in Brussels in July 2023
Image caption,Until her resignation, Judit Varga was a high-profile Fidesz figure destined to play a key role in the European elections in June

Two other key figures have come under attack too – Mr Orban’s communications chief Antal Rogan, who is also in charge of the secret services, and Zoltan Balog, a Protestant bishop and personal adviser to the prime minister.

Mr Balog is alleged to have lobbied behind the scenes for the presidential clemency in the Endre K case. He has denied the allegation.

Within minutes of Judit Varga’s resignation, her ex-husband, powerful Fidesz insider Peter Magyar, announced: “I do not want to be part of a system for a minute longer where the real culprits hide behind women’s skirts.”

“For a long time, I believed in an ideal, in a national, sovereign, civic Hungary,” he complained. “However, over the past few years and especially today, I have come to realise all this is indeed just a political product, a sugary coating that serves only two purposes: to conceal the operation of the power factory and to acquire enormous wealth.”

He followed that up with a 100-minute interview on Sunday evening to the government-critical Partizan channel on YouTube, which has now been viewed 1.4 million times.

Each day, he posts new criticism of government figures on Facebook.

On Tuesday, he singled out Antal Rogan, the government’s communications maestro, asking him why he was staying silent, hiding behind the prime minister’s spokesman.

“You used to cut a much tougher figure,” he said. “Why are you hiding from your constituents? Why haven’t you held a press conference for years? Are you afraid to answer questions?”

Then he turned on Istvan Tiborcz, the son-in-law of the prime minister and husband of Mr Orban’s daughter Rahel.

“Dear Stephen [Istvan], you are a really talented person, at the age of 37, you have 100bn Forints (£220m), so many hotels, banks, fund managers, valuable former state-owned properties.”

“What other companies have you taken over lately? What is the total of government loans or grants you received to build your portfolio? Have you recently visited villages in Borsod [in northeast Hungary], where children sometimes play in the yard without warm clothes in winter?”

People walk on the Chain Bridge as they take part in a protest to demand the resignation of Hungarian President Katalin Novak
Image caption,Ahead of President Novak’s resignation protesters marched in Budapest to object to the pardon she had given last year

Opposition parties have tabled demands to investigate how the clemency was granted, how the state is run, and to call for the direct election of the next president.

The response of the government and of pro-government media has been furious.

“We do not respond to the desperate attempts of people in hopeless situations,” insisted the prime minister’s spokesman, Bertalan Havasi, about Peter Magyar.

“We must demonstrate our strength, because the pack of hyenas, these completely amoral, lying bastards… now smell blood because they think that the moment has come,” wrote Zsolt Bayer in the government flagship daily, Magyar Nemzet.

He went on to propose a show of strength by government supporters on 15 March, a national holiday: “”Let’s show them that the moment hasn’t bloody well come!”

Another commentator, Zsolt Jeszenszky, did not hold back in the government tabloid, Pesti Sracok.

“Those who proclaim [Judit Varga] an ally of paedophiles, who foam at the mouth demanding her head, are the same vile, satanic mob who demanded the death of Christ from Pontius Pilate,” he fumed. “The scum, the sewer rats, have not changed in 2,000 years.”

From the prime minister himself there has been strict silence. At least for now.

It is without doubt his biggest challenge in 14 years of uninterrupted Fidesz rule and the high-profile resignations have dented but not yet seriously damaged his power.

An anti-Orban protest is planned for Friday, but the prime minister will come out fighting, presumably on Saturday when he is due to deliver his annual state of the nation address.

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