Wave of Protests Has Also Reached Budapest

Legal - February 24, 2024

The wave of protests that swept across Europe earlier this year, from West to East, has also reached Budapest. Labelled by the international press as one of the largest demonstrations in Hungary’s capital in recent years, the Hungarians took to the streets in the wake of the so-called pardon scandal.  At the centre of the scandal was former Hungarian president Katalin Novak, Hungary’s first female president, who was nominated by FIDESZ, the party of prime minister Viktor Orban, to take office in 2022.

What really sparked the anger of the Hungarians who took to the streets in Budapest, apart from being outraged that a man convicted of complicity in paedophilia had been pardoned? And, above all, does this scandal affect the long-serving Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who was extremely quick to give up two of his main political allies, President Novak and former Justice Minister Judith Varga, who countersigned the pardon decree?

Katalin Novak pardoned a convict in a paedophilia case

Last April, President Katalin Novak signed a presidential decree before the visit of Pope Francis, pardoning, among several other convicted persons, an individual convicted of paedophilia. The man had been sentenced to three years in prison after being found guilty of covering up abuse in a children’s home as deputy director, an abuse for which his boss, also sentenced to eight years in prison, was also guilty.  The same scandal also saw the resignation of former Justice Minister Judith Varga and the head of the Reformed Church, former minister in a previous government of Viktor Orban, Zoltan Balogh, who is accused of persuading Katalin Novak, whose confessor he was, to grant clemency to the man in question.  And for Prime Minister Viktor Orban – as some analysts in the international press have commented – the pardon scandal has clearly caused him some unpleasantness.

At least, it seems to have cut his appetite for the triumphalism he usually displayed in the speech he gave in early February to present the previous year’s balance sheet. “The year 2024 couldn’t have started any worse” – were Viktor Orban’s first words to the Hungarian nation on the 17th of February, a week after President Novak’s resignation and a day after the massive protests on Heroes’ Boulevard. However, in his speech, the Hungarian Prime Minister neither referred to the protests nor spoke of the details of the scandal, but mentioned former President Novak, whose resignation would have been inevitable because she “no longer represented the unity of the Hungarian nation”, as she was supposed to (due to the fact that part of it disagreed with the pardon decision-n.r.).

What made the Hungarians angrier?

The double standards of Viktor Orban’s political system, which in recent years has made the protection of children a pretext for anti-LGBT propaganda (as in the law banning homosexual propaganda in schools, a piece of legislation that has been severely criticised by the EU)?

The fact that he did not sacrifice too easily his two loyal colleagues, President Katalin Novak and former Justice Minister Judith Varga, who countersigned the pardon act and who, in the wake of the scandal, not only gave up her place at the top of the list of candidates for the European Parliament of FIDESZ – Prime Minister Orban’s party – but also announced that she was retiring from politics?

Or are Hungarians outraged that Viktor Orban is not personally taking responsibility for the mistakes of the system he himself has set up since 2010?

Is Viktor Orban in a stalemate? Is his capitulation to Brussels by agreeing to the latest EU aid for Ukraine, his acceptance – half-heartedly – of the latest sanctions package for Russia and his inevitable refusal to block Sweden’s entry into NATO really having such significant effects, does he feel he is losing popularity with his supporters that he has to shift his supporters’ attention from these “failures” – at least from the perspective of his own rhetoric – to older domestic issues such as “child protection”, paedophiles, homosexuals etc?

Viktor Orban personally has plenty of time to recover from this scandal, as the next general election in Hungary is still two years away. For FIDESZ, his party, there could be immediate effects in June’s European parliamentary elections, but the trend of the far-right’s rise is too strong to do much damage to the Budapest nationalist politician’s party. Especially as he reacted swiftly after the scandal broke, and his loyal supporters were assured that he would amend the constitution to prevent paedophiles from being pardoned.

Over 100,000 people took to the streets in Budapest

The protest on the 16th of February, attended by tens of thousands of Hungarians – according to some sources even more than 100,000 – was clearly more intense than the teachers’ walkout a few weeks earlier, when they were unhappy with pay levels and the government’s plans to strip them of their civil servant status. The recent protests in Hungary – a country where the population has hardly taken to the streets in the last decade, and could even be described as indifferent to the political environment or rather distrustful that the system could change – are a first. And this is especially so given that these demonstrations were organised by influencers, who left their virtual environment and organised something concrete in the real world.

It is a well-known fact that little of Budapest’s media has remained truly independent after the last decade of measures taken by consecutive governments led by Viktor Orban. The influencers behind these protests are voices critical of the Orban regime and are trying to balance the scales against the centrally-funded press through a state foundation, the only chance of survival for the Hungarian media at a time when foreign media trusts, which invested heavily in the Hungarian press after the 1990s, have gradually withdrawn after 2010.


But the balance seems hard to strike.  While foreign – and some Hungarian – journalists have claimed that the protesters’ anger is directed against Prime Minister Viktor Orban, his government and his party, FIDESZ – responsible at least for appointing two of the controversial figures to office – Novak and Varga – the Viktor Orban-friendly press has portrayed the protest as one for the protection of children. And this at a time when Viktor Orban announced after Novak’s resignation that he would take even tougher measures to punish paedophiles. In other words, the rally could easily have been seen as a rally in support of Viktor Orban’s promised power and measures.

However, other questions remain about this latest scandal in Budapest. The pardon act was signed by former President Novak a year before the scandal broke, and apparently came to light by chance when the man in question applied to the Supreme Court to clear his record, including the pardon act, which was public. It is also unclear what the man’s relationship was with the head of the Hungarian Reformed Church, Zoltan Balogh, who is accused of having interfered with President Novak in the pardon. What is certain is that Katalin Novak is not the first president propelled into office by Viktor Orban to resign mid-term.  Like her, in 2012, just two years into his tenure as Hungary’s president, Pal Schmitt was forced to resign following a mega plagiarism scandal.  At the time, former competitive athlete and former president of the Hungarian National Olympic Committee, Schmitt did not take resignation as lightly as Katalin Novak, despite pressure from the street, with Hungarian students demanding his resignation in street protests after the plagiarism verdict by the supreme academic body. Incidentally, the protest on the 16th of February this year took place a week after Hungary’s president resigned from office.

There is another link – coincidental or not – between the two resignations: at the origin of both is the same press site, the successor of an economic weekly of the 1980s, owned for a time by a foreign trust and which, after its withdrawal from Hungary “returned to the old ownership”.