Hungary’s conservative president tendered her resignation on Saturday amidst widespread public outcry following a controversial pardon she granted to a man convicted as an accomplice in a child sexual abuse case.
The decision, which sparked an unprecedented political scandal for the long-standing nationalist government, led Katalin Novák, aged 46, to announce her departure from the presidency, a position she had held since 2022.
Her resignation followed more than a week of public outrage triggered by revelations that she had issued a presidential pardon in April 2023 to a man convicted of concealing a series of child sexual abuses in a state-operated children’s home.
“I issued a pardon that caused bewilderment and unrest for many people,” Novák acknowledged on Saturday. “I made a mistake.”
Novák’s departure marked a rare instance of political upheaval for Hungary’s nationalist ruling party, Fidesz, which has maintained power with a constitutional majority since 2010. Led by populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Fidesz has faced accusations of eroding democratic institutions and manipulating the electoral system and media to its advantage.
A close ally of Orbán and former vice president of Fidesz, Novák previously served as the minister for families before assuming the presidency. Throughout her tenure, she has been a vocal advocate for traditional family values and child protection.
As the first female president in Hungary’s history and the youngest person ever to hold the office, Novák’s term was cut short by the controversy surrounding the pardon she granted to a man sentenced in 2018 to over three years in prison.
He was convicted of coercing victims to retract allegations of sexual abuse by the institution’s director, who received an eight-year sentence for abusing at least 10 children between 2004 and 2016.
“I decided in favor of clemency in April of last year, believing that the convict did not exploit the vulnerability of the children entrusted to him. I made a mistake,” Novák admitted on Saturday. “I apologize to those I have hurt and to any victims who may have felt I am not standing up for them.”
The fallout also implicated Judit Varga, another prominent figure within Fidesz who served as the minister of justice at the time and supported the pardon.
Varga, expected to lead Fidesz’s list of candidates for the European Parliament elections scheduled for this summer, announced her withdrawal from public life and resignation from her parliamentary seat and leadership of the EP list via a Facebook post on Saturday.
In response to Novák’s resignation, around 200 people gathered outside the presidential headquarters in Budapest initially to demand her resignation. Following her announcement, attendees expressed mixed feelings, with some stating that her resignation wasn’t enough to bring about a fundamental change in Orbán’s governance system.
Orbán’s Fidesz remains the most popular political party in Hungary, and a fragmented opposition has contributed to its success in securing four consecutive election victories. However, his government’s close ties to the Kremlin and its reluctance to support key decisions within the European Union have drawn criticism from member states.
Máté Kocsis, the head of Fidesz’s parliamentary delegation, issued a statement on Saturday praising Novák and Varga for their “responsible decision,” expressing gratitude for their service to the party.