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Hungary gets new president following scandal

Tamas Sulyok follows Katalin Novak as president after Novak had to step down
Tamas Sulyok follows Katalin Novak as president after Novak had to step down - Copyright AFP ATTILA KISBENEDEK
Tamas Sulyok follows Katalin Novak as president after Novak had to step down - Copyright AFP ATTILA KISBENEDEK

Hungary’s parliament on Monday elected a political novice as president following the resignation of his predecessor, who caused outrage by pardoning a man convicted in a child abuse case.

The affair has turned into the biggest political crisis that nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban has faced since his return to power in 2010.

Orban ally Katalin Novak resigned as president earlier this month after it was revealed she had pardoned a convicted child abuser’s accomplice.

Last week, ruling party Fidesz nominated Constitutional Court head Tamas Sulyok, 67, to replace Novak, Hungary’s first woman president.

On Monday, parliament — where Fidesz’ ruling coalition with the Christian Democratic KDNP holds a two-thirds majority — approved his appointment, after which he took the oath of office.

He will become president on March 5.

Little known to the broader public, Sulyok became a constitutional court judge in 2014 and, two years later, the court’s head.

The opposition has criticised the nomination of politically inexperienced Sulyok.

Around 3,000 people attended a Sunday protest by four opposition parties, calling for direct presidential elections.

The post is largely ceremonial.

– ‘Duller presidency’ –

The Novak scandal broke early this month when news site 444 revealed that she had pardoned the former deputy director of a children’s home last year, on the eve of Pope Francis’s visit. 

The man was sentenced in 2022 to three years and four months in prison for helping to cover up his boss sexually abusing children and adolescents there.

Tens of thousands of people have protested against the presidential pardon in Hungary, whose government has long campaigned on a pledge to protect children.

Orban has likened the resignation of Novak to a “nightmare”, but stressed it was the right decision.

When opening the parliament session on Monday, he described Sulyok as someone with “vast experience, respected knowledge and undisputed authority”. 

“I believe that Hungary needs such a president now,” he said.

Under Sulyok, the Constitutional Court made several controversial rulings, including on teachers’ rights to strike.

To calm anger over the pardon scandal, Orban has promised to tighten existing laws to bar convicted child abusers from receiving clemency.

He also wants to vet those working with children to make sure they have passed the “appropriate suitability test”, covering “lifestyle, sexual deviance and psychological fitness”.

Szabolcs Pek, a political analyst from research institute Iranytu Intezet, said the decision to appoint Sulyok, who is not a party member and described as a “reserved man”, meant Orban was playing it safe. 

“We cannot expect from Tamas Sulyok the kind of world-travelling, ‘influencer’ politics that Katalin Novak represented, for his professional character and personality are the guarantee of a duller, perhaps one might say boring, presidency, which is all Fidesz needs,” he told AFP.

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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