The ongoing child sexual abuse scandal threatens the very foundations of the Orbán regime
The child sexual abuse scandal affects the highest circles of power and undermines a fundamental element of the Orbán regime's identity. Therefore, it remains a significant political risk for the government. While it seems unlikely that the scandal could damage Viktor Orbán's credibility among his supporters, the risk is at its highest since he came to power in 2010. For this reason, the prime minister has sought to defuse the situation by tackling the crisis quickly and regaining the initiative. Nevertheless, the issue is likely to remain on the agenda because there is no answer to the fundamental question of who motivated the pardon of the pedophile director's accomplice.
On 10 February, President of the Republic Katalin Novák and former Justice Minister Judit Varga, MP, who was set to head the Fidesz list for the 9 June European Parliament elections, resigned. Their resignations were undoubtedly decided upon the instructions of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Both politicians were prominent figures in the Orbán regime.
The reason for their downfall is that on 2 February, it became public that during the Pope's visit to Budapest in April 2023, President Novák had pardoned the former deputy director of a children's home, who had blackmailed several children into withdrawing their testimony against the pedophile director.
No political scandal since 2010 has had such a rapid and severe political impact. There are presumably two reasons for this.
- The case involves the highest levels of the regime. Exactly why and on whose initiative the pardon decision was made remains unclear. However, the pardoned person is known to be well-connected to the ruling party circles and the family of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. This may explain the prime minister's desire to bring the case to a swift conclusion: he has been trying to prevent the case from being traced back to him.
- The case undermined a fundamental element of the regime's identity. In recent years, the ruling Fidesz party has made child protection one of the cornerstones of its political agenda, often accusing its political opponents of pedophilia. In fact, the ruling party has passed a law conflating pedophilia and homosexuality, calling it 'child protection.' It was then difficult to explain why the president of the republic, who was Fidesz's vice-president and minister of family affairs just over two years ago, had pardoned a convict involved in pedophilia.
From the ruling party’s point of view, the case is further aggravated by the fact that the ex-husband of the resigned Judit Varga, Péter Magyar, came out in public and suggested that "the real culprits" were not those involved in the scandal. He criticized the functioning of the system, calling it unacceptable that "half of the country is owned by a handful of families" and said that Head of Cabinet of the Prime Minister Antal Rogán, who controls both the civil secret services and government propaganda, "has to go". Péter Magyar did not say anything that had not already been reported by institutions analyzing the Orbán regime (including Political Capital), researchers, and the media. Still, the significance of his criticism is that it comes from a man who, through his wife, has had access to the highest government circles for years and has held important economic positions in the regime, so he has a considerable wealth of knowledge.
Why could this happen?
In authoritarian political systems, such as the Orbán regime, external and internal controls are inevitably dismantled, checks and balances are removed, and political orders, or presumed orders, are carried out without a word. Thus, with its considerable political risks, the decision to pardon was allowed to run through the organization of the government and the presidential office without any obstacles. Although the professional recommendation of the justice minister’s office initially did not recommend granting a pardon to a person who had covered up pedophile crimes, the decision was nevertheless made at the Office of President Novák. The former Minister of Justice Judit Varga then countersigned the decision. It is unknown why the president's office made this decision and whether there was a political order. According to the investigative portal Direkt36, Zoltán Balog, the leader of the Reformed Church of Hungary and former minister under whom Katalin Novák was state secretary and later advisor to President Novák, with long-standing close ties to the Orbán family, played an essential role in the initiative for the pardon.
Given the ruling party's dominance in both power and the public sphere, it is unusual for Fidesz to be forced into a defensive position. Yet, it happened immediately after the pardon scandal exploded. The confusion of Fidesz politicians was palpable for days: first, they did not react, then they defended the decision, then Fidesz parliamentary group leader Máté Kocsis tried to shift the pedophilia accusation to the left, and then the prime minister attempted to take the initiative and close the case by announcing a constitutional amendment. Under the proposed amendment - the idea for which came from Dóra Dúró, vice-president of Mi Hazánk - convicted persons involved in offences against minors would not be eligible for a presidential pardon.
However, Prime Minister Orbán also acknowledged that a mistake had been made and shifted the blame to President Novák, even though in terms of public law, the direct political responsibility for the decision lay with the then Minister of Justice Varga, i.e., the government. Thus, alongside Katalin Novák, Judit Varga had to resign from all her positions.
The opposition parties attacked President Novák equally but not in unison, competing to demand her resignation. This also put pressure on the government, but it was not the decisive factor. The scandal caused significant outrage among Fidesz’s voter base, and this time, the ruling party failed to shift the blame to external actors. This is yet another case where the ruling party has been challenged by the public mood of its own making. The pedophile stigma that Fidesz has used for years and pinned on others has now been burned on Katalin Novák and Judit Varga, just as, for example, the government's guest-worker law failed because of the extreme anti-immigration stance taken by the governing party. Ultimately, Katalin Novák and Judit Varga have become victims of the political system and the social environment created by their party.
What to expect?
Immediately after the dual resignation, the ruling party’s propaganda began to insist that the case was closed, that those responsible had made the necessary decision, and that the ruling party was morally superior to the opposition, where there were never consequences for any mistakes. Yet, the scandal is not over.
The question of why the pedophile director's accomplice was pardoned remains unanswered, and the fact that Péter Magyar has gone on the record indicates that there may be dissatisfaction within the ranks of Fidesz. For now, the scandal does not seem to be fading quickly from the public eye. On the one hand, the search for and election of a new president (30 days after the parliamentary vote on the president’s resignation) is bound to bring the issue back into the public spotlight. However, the avalanche set off by Péter Magyar may be even more significant. So far, his criticism has not affected the prime minister personally, but only his inner circle, mainly Antal Rogán. The opposition, on the other hand, is already trying to reframe the issue. While on Friday they demanded the resignation of Katalin Novák, today they are calling for Rogán's departure, and the first voices are starting to raise questions about the prime minister's responsibility. For the moment, it seems unlikely that Viktor Orbán's reputation among his supporters will be damaged, but one thing is certain: in the last 14 years, he has never faced a comparable threat to his credibility.
The ruling party is also expected to use brute force to put an end to the matter. The Orbán regime's track record suggests that it will seek to further restrict the independent press. One of the main tools could be the recently established Office for the Protection of Sovereignty, which is tasked with intimidating and stigmatizing opposition politicians, NGOs, and the remaining independent media as foreign agents.