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A hole in the dam

Rarely has Viktor Orbán missed an opportunity to glad-hand Christian leaders and organisations from around the world, hosting delegations, galas and press conferences

Carol Schaeffer Published 05.03.24, 07:10 AM
The prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán.

The prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán. Sourced by the Telegraph.

The prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, is facing the biggest scandal of his career since he consolidated power in 2010. The nature of the scandal — it involves corruption at the highest levels of the government as well as the most vile human crime, the sexual abuse of children — would undo any normal democratic leader. But Orbán is hardly a normal democratic leader. As prime minister, Orbán has carefully stripped away the infrastructure of an openly democratic society. The way in which he has remained largely undamaged shows how deep his engineering has penetrated Hungary’s democratic foundation.

In February, journalists revealed that some of Orbán’s closest political allies had pardoned a man convicted of helping his superior cover up the sexual abuse of children in a Calvinist orphanage for over a decade. The pardon shortened the man’s sentence and cleared his criminal record. The details surrounding the pardon remain unknown as the media apparatus, largely controlled by Orbán, has evaded the scandal.


Meanwhile, the president, Katalin Novák, who issued the pardon, and the justice minister, Judit Varga, who signed off on it, have both resigned due to the scandal. Despite it being the biggest Hungarian political scandal of the past decade, it is unlikely to directly impact Orbán who is using several familiar tactics to evade the brunt of the scandal — deflecting blame onto scapegoats, enlisting the complicity of the institutions he has engineered to support him, and pointing fingers at the Opposition wherever possible.

The scandal has highlighted the hypocrisy of Orbán’s ‘family values’ platform, which regularly accuses his opponents of sexual deviancy and attacks queer people as paedophiles. The war against paedophilia has been at the core of Orbán’s messaging for more than a decade, often with laws that go hand in hand with curtailing queer civil liberties. The pardon goes back to April 2023, when Novák granted several presidential pardons to mark Pope Francis’ visit to Hungary. Other pardons included that of the convicted terrorist and far-Right activist, György Budaházy, who confidently rode out of jail on a horse (a not particularly subtle symbol of Hungarian nationalism).

Implicated in the scandal are Orbán’s closest allies. Novák was, at one time, Orbán’s minister of state for family, youth, and international affairs while Varga was set to lead Hungary’s ‘illiberal’ campaign in the upcoming European elections in June. A 2022 article in Le Monde described Varga and Novák as the only two women “to have broken into the male circles of the prime minister.”

Orbán has been uncharacteristically tight-lipped about the scandal, allowing his subordinates to take the fall entirely. He has publicly distanced himself from Novák who he has only referred to as “Madame President” since the scandal broke. He quickly proposed a change in Hungary’s Constitution to prevent future pardons of this nature, vowing to show “no mercy” to paedophile offenders. Since his party, Fidesz, controls more than a two-thirds majority in Parliament, Orbán’s party frequently passes constitutional amendments without meaningful challenge.

By portraying himself as a protector of ‘family values’ and by claiming that what is at stake in this cultural battle is the fate of Hungary’s children to be safe from “paedophiles”, Orbán has got away with countless assaults on democracy. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in protest, holding placards that use Orbán’s language against him. Ferenc Gyurcsány, Orbán’s socialist predecessor who was forced to resign after his own scandal and is now leader of the social-liberal Democratic Coalition party, called Orbán “Hungary’s first paedophile-friendly prime minister.”

Concurrent with Orbán’s ‘family values’ are his ‘Christian values’. Rarely has Orbán missed an opportunity to glad-hand Christian leaders and organisations from around the world, hosting delegations, galas and press conferences. Orbán often likes to refer to himself as the great defender of Europe’s ‘Christian values’, although he himself has had a far more ambiguous personal relationship with the Church. Given Orbán’s cultivation of the Church, one might imagine Hungary to be a deeply religious country. However, although 80% of Hungarians identify as Christian, less than 15% say that they attend church on a weekly basis. The Christian values Orbán refers to often have little to do with actual Christianity and are instead a way of justifying cruel choices over kindness.

Nevertheless, this close relationship with the Church has been part of Orbán’s grip on power, and some are speculating that it may have had something to do with why the pardon was issued in the first place. Zoltán Balog, the synod president of the Hungarian Reformed Church and a former Fidesz cabinet minister, has been implicated in the pardoning scandal. A long-time mentor to Novák, there is suspicion that the pardon was issued at Balog’s encouragement. As a Calvinist bishop, Balog has played a significant role in shaping Fidesz over the decades, transforming it from a Western-facing, anti-communist and socially liberal party to the conservative and authoritarian political establishment it is today.

The key to Orbán’s longevity as the prime minister has been the deep structure of institutional support he has engineered for himself. The government-controlled press, which, according to Reporters Without Borders, is more than 80% of all Hungarian media, has been avoidant in addressing the scandal. In recent weeks, the far-Right journalist and Orbán close confidant, Zsolt Bayer, argued in the pro-Fidesz newspaper, Magyar Nemzet, that Novák and Varga “did what they thought was right.” The Church has also distanced itself from the scandal and remained largely silent. Meanwhile, what little Orbán has said about the scandal indicates that his main tactic will be to blame the Opposition. In his February 26 address to the spring session of Parliament, Orbán claimed with little coherent evidence that it was actually the Leftist Opposition that was responsible for the horrific sexual abuse at the orphanage upon which the pardon scandal pivots, not his right-wing government.

But perhaps Orbán’s most powerful tool is his ideological malleability. He has never displayed consistency in conviction or belief, merely pulling whatever levers can most conveniently secure his control. In his early career, he was a liberal anti-authoritarian advocating for a free and open society. Now, he benefits from near authoritarian rule as a leader of European ‘illiberalism’. To achieve this, he has built systematic control over institutions of public culture and opinion such as the Church and the media. And as in any rigid hierarchy, those working under him will be sacrificed to protect their leader. If Orbán appears untouchable, it is due to this self-serving structure. It is the familiar tool of a dictator — rather than a democratic leader — to chisel and mould the shape of a nation to suit his needs. But just maybe the marble is beginning to crack.

Carol Schaeffer is a journalist based in New York and Berlin from where she writes about Europe, politics and culture

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