Hungarian President Katalin Novak on Saturday resigned 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.
Novak, 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 last year 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,” Novak said on Saturday. “I made a mistake.”
Novak’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 Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Fidesz has been accused of dismantling democratic institutions and rigging the electoral system and media in its favor.
Novak, a key Orban ally and a former vice president of Fidesz, served as Hungarian minister for family affairs 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.
However, 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,” Novak said on Saturday. “I apologize to those I have hurt and to any victims who may have felt I am not standing up for them.”
Also implicated was Judit Varga, another key Fidesz figure who was Hungarian minister of justice at the time and endorsed the pardon. Varga was expected to lead the list of European Parliament (EP) candidates from Fidesz when elections are held this summer.
Varga wrote on Facebook on Saturday 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, about 200 people gathered in what was originally planned as a protest to call on Novak to resign.
After her announcement, attendees said they were happy, but that it was not enough to fundamentally change Orban’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,” attendee Anna Bujna said.
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