What Is Going on in Hungary? Pardon Case That Brought Down President

Benjamin Ferrers: The Court of Chancery during the reign of George I // Public domain

For two weeks now, Fidesz has completely lost control of the Hungarian political discourse, something that has not been seen for a long time, especially to this extent. The reason for this is an article published on February 2 on 444.hu, which explains that Hungary’s 6th President of the Republic, Katalin Novák, has pardoned Endre K., the former deputy director of the Bicske children’s home. Endre K. was sentenced to 3 years and 4 months in prison in 2019 in the first instance and again in 2021 in the second instance for forcing children abused by the director to retract their incriminating testimonies.

What makes this case so special is that Katalin Novák’s pardon was also prompted by the Pope’s visit to Hungary in 2023, when she also pardoned György Budaházy and his accomplices, who were convicted of terrorism and other crimes. On this day, Novák granted the most pardons in Hungarian history on a single day, as she pardoned 22 people on 27 April 2023. From then on, she was second in terms of acceptance rate, if we look at the statistics, as Novák granted 40 out of 446 pardons in 2023. After the case broke out, the President of the Republic was also given a nickname: “Katalin the Forgiver”, first used by a famous internet content producer Zsolt Osváth.

But on what basis can someone be pardoned in Hungary? A request for a pardon can be submitted to the court by the convicted person or with his or her consent, which can, if it wishes, request the data, or order a background report to be carried out, after which the request for pardon is passed from the court to the Minister of Justice (or the Minister responsible for this).

Similarly, where the Minister of Justice may request information about the person from available databases, the Minister of Justice then submits the request to the President of the Republic, who may decide whether to grant the pardon based on the available information. If the pardon is granted, the Minister of Justice still must countersign the request, as it should be noted that the Minister who countersigns the request (in this case, the then Minister of Justice, Judit Varga) bears political responsibility for pardon cases.

There has not been a case of the Minister of Justice not countersigning the pardon decision since the 2010 Fidesz government. In Hungary, in pardon cases, the President of the Republic does not have to disclose the reasons for the pardon, nor do they have to disclose who was pardoned. Beyond the legal formality, what is the role and why does the President of the Republic have the power to pardon?

The importance of granting clemency lies in the fact that the supreme public dignitary is the President of the Republic, who represents the unity of the nation and can pardon cases in which the rigid legal system has made an incorrect judgment from the point of view of social morality. This is where people’s problem with the pardoning of both Endre K. and György Budaházy comes in, as there is no consensus in Hungarian society on these cases and thus the basis for the pardon is also broken (especially in the case of Endre K.).

For almost 14 years now, the governing party has been telling Hungarian society that they are the only political force in Hungary that can protect children from their enemies. These enemies always appear in the government media in different guises, sometimes in the form of undocumented immigrants, sometimes in the form of the pro-war left who want to send young people to fight in Ukraine, and sometimes in the form of the LMBTQ+ community and paedophiles. In the latter case, the governing coalition has even drafted a law to protect children from paedophilia and promised Europe’s toughest anti-paedophile crackdown before the law was introduced.

Despite this, this ready-made package of laws has not achieved the desired results, as it is rather homophobic and purposefully confuses paedophilia and homosexuality. As we have seen over 14 years, the Hungarian government has three main focuses: God, Country, and Family. These are the things on which the right-wing conservative coalition government defines itself. Two of these foundations are also involved in this case.

The involvement of the Family as a cornerstone is perhaps the most notable in this particular clemency case, as Katalin Novák was Minister for Families between 2020 and 2021 and Minister of State for Family and Youth Affairs, Ministry of Human Resources between 2014 and 2020, which means that Katalin Novák, who has three children, was one of the most important politicians in the field of childbearing and similar issues affecting families. She has maintained this role during her presidency of the Republic, as she has often shown that family comes first, as she has posted many pictures of her family and her life, and she has also met Elon Musk in Texas and discussed the importance of having children. But Novák has also been an important part of the narrative that there is something to be said for being a mother in politics and that women can do as much for their nation as men.

Apart from Katalin Novák, other governmental and Fidesz politicians have long been present in governmental communication to emphasise the importance of the family. This is expressed in speeches, writings or just pictures, the most recent example being Viktor Orbán’s Facebook video announcing the constitutional amendment: ‘I have five children and six grandchildren and if someone touched them, the first thought would be to cut them in half or cut them into pieces’.

The importance of God is linked to the fact that since the 2000s Fidesz has increasingly been described as a right-wing conservative party, and religion cannot be absent from this image. Since 2010, faith and churches have been present in Hungarian public life to an unprecedented extent (while the number of active believers and churchgoers is decreasing), churches have a significantly greater role in public holidays and churches are now receiving more and more financial support from the Hungarian government in various forms.

These subsidies also take the form of church renovations and the granting of church property in public buildings. The importance of religion will also be given a prominent place in public education. Finally, religious actors/leaders are also increasingly meeting and presenting themselves to government actors. Perhaps one of the most striking examples is the case of Zoltán Balog, who went from being a minister to being the first man and bishop of the Hungarian Reformed Church. During his episcopate he was given a prominent role on several occasions.

At the ecumenical service of the 2019 Pan-European Picnic in Sopron, organised as part of the 30th anniversary event series, which was attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Viktor Orbán, it was Balog who celebrated on behalf of the Reformed Church. More relevant to the pardon scandal may be the fact that Zoltán Balog was a pillar member of the 2023 advisory board that advised Katalin Novák. Zoltán Balog’s role is also important in the sense that Viktor Orbán and Katalin Novák are both members of the Reformed Church, and Balog has an even closer relationship with them. While initially after the scandal, Balog kept his position as head of Church, a few days ago he eventually had to resign. Pope Francis has already visited Hungary several times and has received Hungarian state leaders in the Vatican on several occasions and, as I have already mentioned, the recent pardon scandal can be linked to such a visit by the Pope.

In the days following the outbreak of the case, neither Katalin Novák nor Viktor Orbán made any significant statements. The Fidesz party was the first to try to save the day, but within a few days it became crystal clear that Katalin Novák, as a conservative and family-oriented political entity, no longer existed in the eyes of Hungarian society. Almost as soon as the scandal broke, the ruling party began to “measure” how stable the President of the Republic was and whether she should resign. These polling was carried out by telephone, but we do not know much more about them.

The President of the Republic made her first and last statement to the press on 6 February, when the Armenian President visited Hungary and held a joint press conference with him. Here, Katalin Novák did not explain the reasons for her decision and did not answer precisely questions posed by ATV. In her reply, she said that she is disgusted by paedophilia and that she will not and will not pardon paedophiles during her presidency. She went on to stress that the smear campaign launched since the article was the work of the opposition.

Since the press conference, Katalin Novák has not responded verbally to journalists’ questions. In 2023, Katalin Novák set up an advisory body, which includes Levente Szörényi (member of the legendary Illés music band), János Lackfi (writer), Gábor Gundel Takács (TV personality), Szabina Tomán (businesswoman), Zoltán Balog (Reformed bishop) and other well-known figures in Hungarian society. The first to leave the board was Gábor Gundel Takács, who wrote in a Facebook post that he explained:

“I cannot identify with Hungarian political culture, communication, cynicism, methods, emotions, and unscrupulousness. I don’t agree with any of the sides. That is why I do not wish to be a member of the Advisory Council in the future, because, despite my hopes, this work cannot be done without politics”.

News of who resigned from the Advisory Council and when were published in the press from Thursday. All the names listed above have resigned, except Zoltán Balog. Following the resignation of the head of state, only 2 members of the 16-member body openly supported Novák, Fruzsina Skrabski and Zoltán Balog, both urging the president not to resign and the abdication not to be accepted by parliament following her resignation on Saturday.

Meanwhile, on the government side, it was Viktor Orbán who broke the silence after returning from an extraordinary 3-day government retreat in Sopronbánfalva. In his post, he, like Novák, strongly condemned paedophilia and underlined the Hungarian government’s zero tolerance on the issue of paedophilia. At the same time, he also submitted a constitutional amendment concerning the restriction of the President’s pardoning power, stating that the President of the Republic, following the amendment, could not use their pardoning power in the case of persons who had committed a deliberate crime against a minor.

In response, the Sándor Palace (formerly the Office of the President of the Republic) said in a statement that Katalin Novák would be happy to sign the constitutional amendment. Many analysts have interpreted Orbán’s announcement as the head of government taking the safety net off the president to protect himself and his regime. From then on, government officials also increasingly confronted Novák, to show that they were two separate “camps”. First, Fidesz parliamentary group leader Máté Kocsis expressed his intention to find out the reason for the pardon (Kocsis defended the president after the outbreak).

But what was the President of the Republic doing while she’s slowly losing her advisers and her old party colleagues are also defying her? Katalin Novák arrived in Doha, the capital of Qatar, the venue of the World Aquatics Championships, on the evening of 8 February. It was partly here that she met the chief organiser of the World Championships and watched the Hungary-Kazakhstan futsal match. But during her visit to Doha, the situation at home escalated. She realised this and interrupted her visit, which was originally scheduled to last until Sunday, to return home on Saturday morning.

At the time, there was much speculation as to why the head of state had cut short her diplomatic trip, but until confirmation was received, it was all speculation. Just before 17:00 on 10 February, news came that the Head of State would make an extraordinary announcement on M1. Prior to the announcement, it was Ágoston Sámuel Mráz who briefly explained to TV viewers from a governmental point of view the pardon scandal, as the state media had been silent for a long time about the case and its details, meaning that citizens who only consumed state media might not have known about the whole case or even if they did, they knew little about it. At about 17:30, the pre-recorded resignation speech was delivered. In it, Novák admitted that the pardon was a mistake on her part and apologised for it, and stressed the most important part of her job as head of state, which is to represent the unity of the nation, but she admitted that she is no longer able to do this and therefore she is resigning from her post.

At the same time, Judit Varga also resigned as the frontrunner of Fidesz-KDNP’s EP list and announced her retirement from public life. It was she who countersigned the pardon applications back in 2023. Following the resignations, the main slogan of the government media has become that government politicians bear the consequences of their decisions, while opposition politicians never do.

The ruling party is terribly embarrassed by Katalin Novák’s resignation, as she is the second President of the Republic since 2010 to be nominated by Fidesz (in Novák’s case, by Viktor Orbán personally) and had to resign due to a scandal. Back in 2012, former Olympian and president of the republic Pál Schmitt was embroiled in a plagiarism scandal, as it turned out that he had obtained a significant part of his PhD thesis from foreign sources, i.e. he did not obtain his academic degree on his own academic merit.

But the current case is much more serious than Schmitt’s, as a pardon scandal has broken out in a case that is condemned by everyone regardless of party affiliation, ideological views, and wealth (according to the pro-government Nézőpont Institute, 70% of Hungarians approve of Katalin Novák’s resignation). The other aspect is that there are no longer any female leading politicians in Fidesz and in the government.


In the space of 2 weeks, things have happened in Hungarian public life that have not been seen since 2010, which has significantly shown that the artificial reality built by Fidesz can be destroyed if the right topic is chosen and the right work is done. The domestic opposition and media have, in my opinion, made good use of the opportunity that has fallen into their laps and attacked the system in the right places.

The opposition has kept the clemency issue on the agenda by collecting signatures, organising demonstrations, and proposing legislation. And the media began to uncover the details of the case with excellent journalistic work. Since the resignations, several politicians have been attacked in a similar way, facing a demand to resign, among them Viktor Orbán and “Minister of Propaganda” Antal Rogán. In addition, opposition parties DK and Momentum have also reintroduced the issue of the direct election of the president, i.e. that the head of state should be elected by the people, not by the MPs.

There were also civil initiatives, such as a demonstration planned by online content creators for 16 February 2024, backed by artists, TV personalities, athletes, and actors from both the right and the left. The scale of the protest broke the apathy, as some estimates suggest that content creators were able to gather 150,000 people in Heroes’ Square. Not since the internet tax protest has there been such a large opposition/civil protest.

Although its impact is not yet known, but in any case, it was a strong message to the powers that be, and one that the NER (National Cooperation System, synonym for the empire that Fidesz built in Hungary) did not expect, a perfect example of this was Viktor Orbán’s “state of the union” speech that took place the next day. What was apparent was that the current communication was not perfectly planned because of the status quo, and this was also apparent in the conflicts within the party.

The most important question of the current scandal and subsequent movements is whether this issue will last until the summer municipal and European Parliament elections, and whether this will lead to a more lasting and greater result for the opposition (opposition parties and civilians) against Fidesz.

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Zoltan Berczi
Republikon Institute