BUDAPEST, Hungary — Hungary’s conservative president resigned Saturday amid public outcry over a pardon she granted to a man convicted as an accomplice in a child sexual abuse case, a decision that unleashed an unprecedented political scandal for the long-serving nationalist government.
Katalin Novák, 46, announced in a televised message that she would step down from the presidency, an office she has held since 2022. Her decision came after more than a week of public outrage after it was revealed that she issued a presidential pardon in April 2023 to a man convicted of hiding a string of child sexual abuses in a state-run children’s home.
“I issued a pardon that caused bewilderment and unrest for many people,” Novák said on Saturday. “I made a mistake.”
Novák’s resignation came as a rare episode of political turmoil for Hungary’s nationalist governing party Fidesz, which has ruled with a constitutional majority since 2010. Under the leadership of populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Fidesz has been accused of dismantling democratic institutions and rigging the electoral system and media in its favor.
Novák, a key Orbán ally and a former vice president of Fidesz, served as the minister for families until her appointment to the presidency. She has been outspoken in advocating for traditional family values and the protection of children.
She was the first female president in Hungary’s history, and the youngest person to ever hold the office.
But her term came to an end after she pardoned a man sentenced in 2018 to more than three years in prison. He was found guilty of pressuring victims to retract their claims of sexual abuse by the institution’s director, who was sentenced to eight years for abusing at least 10 children between 2004 and 2016.
“I decided in favor of clemency in April of last year in the belief that the convict did not abuse the vulnerability of the children entrusted to him. I made a mistake," Novák said Saturday. “I apologize to those I have hurt and to any victims who may have felt I am not standing up for them.
“As head of state, I am addressing you for the last time today. I resign from the office of president of the republic,” she said.
Also implicated was Judit Varga, another key Fidesz figure who was minister of justice at the time and endorsed the pardon. Varga was expected to lead the list of European Parliament candidates from Fidesz when elections are held this summer.
But in a Facebook post on Saturday, Varga announced that she would take political responsibility and “retire from public life, resigning my seat as a member of parliament and also as leader of the EP list."
At the presidential headquarters in Budapest on Saturday evening, around 200 people gathered in what was originally planned as a protest to call on Novák to resign.
After her announcement, attendees said they were happy, but that it wasn't enough to fundamentally change Orbán's system of governance.
“I’m glad that she resigned but I think things aren’t solved this way. She’s not the main criminal, you’ve got to look all the way to the top," said Anna Bujna.
Erzsébet Szapunczay, another attendee, said she was “very, very happy” with Novák's resignation, but that “she should have resigned from the first moment, like many people in this government, because she’s not alone.
"Her resignation was correct, because this way she saves herself from even more people hating her and being outraged that she represented this country until now,” she said.
Orbán's Fidesz enjoys the highest level of support among Hungary's political parties, and a fragmented opposition has contributed to his winning four straight election victories.
His government, considered the most friendly to the Kremlin in the European Union, has been criticized within the bloc for holding up key decisions such as support for Ukraine and admitting Sweden into the NATO military alliance.
On Saturday, the head of Fidesz's parliamentary delegation, Máté Kocsis, said in a statement that Novák and Varga had made a “responsible decision,” and that the party was grateful for their work.
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