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Child abuse scandal rattles Orban’s image as defender of ‘family values’

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Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has for years told his country its children are under attack from deviant sexualities and pedophilia. Now, his government is embroiled in a scandal after it emerged that its president had pardoned a man convicted of covering up sexual abuse at a children’s home.

President Katalin Novak, Orban’s loyal but largely impotent ally, resigned last Saturday amid public furor over her decision in April 2023 to pardon the deputy director of a children’s home who had helped to cover up the abuse of underaged boys. She said she made a “mistake” in “believing that the convict did not exploit the vulnerability of children whom he had overseen.”

Novak’s pardon was reportedly signed off by former Justice Minister Judit Varga, the ruling Fidesz party’s leading candidate for the European parliament election. Varga also resigned. Within days, the only two women to have served in Orban’s cabinet had stepped down. But their resignations have not stemmed the speculation swirling around his government.

Orban has long posed as a globetrotting defender of Christian values and an enemy of liberalism. Aided by state and private media outlets under his government’s control, he has campaigned against what he says is a wave of gender ideology, flowing mostly from the European Union, aiming to corrupt Hungary’s youth. His message has been echoed by politicians from Washington to Moscow.

But Orban’s critics say his carefully constructed image is a thin guise for a plutocratic mode of governance designed to enrich a small group of oligarchs.

While the scandal is unlikely to loosen Orban’s grip on power, it has dealt a blow to Fidesz’s image in revealing it tolerated crimes against children it swore to prevent. The scandal could also weaken Hungary’s bid to gain more influence in Brussels in the upcoming European elections.

Since the scandal was revealed last weekend by Hungarian news site 444.hu, “Orban has not made an appearance or said anything. It’s very unusual for him to be quiet for a whole week,” said Kim Lane Scheppele, a professor of international affairs at Princeton University, who first met Orban in the 1990s, before the first of his four terms as prime minister that has made him Europe’s longest-serving leader.

Speculation that more ministers may be implicated in the scandal increased when Peter Magyar, Varga’s ex-husband, publicly accused senior Fidesz figures of allowing women to take the fall.

“I do not want to be part of a system for a minute longer where the real culprits hide behind women’s skirts,” Magyar said in a video interview with Hungarian outlet Partizan viewed by more than 2 million people.

Magyar said he used to believe in “an ideal, in a national, sovereign, civic Hungary” – the sort vaunted by Orban. “However, over the past few years and especially today, I have come to realize all this is indeed just a political product, a sugary coating that serves only two purposes: to conceal the operation of the power factory and to acquire enormous wealth.”

Despite offering scant public comment on the scandal, Orban swiftly proposed changing Hungary’s constitution to prevent future pardons from being granted to anyone convicted in connection with crimes against children. “For pedophile offenders, there is no mercy!” Orban said.

But the proposal has done little to dampen the anger directed against Orban’s government. Protests – a rarity in Hungary – have been staged throughout the past week, with more expected Saturday ahead of Orban’s annual State of the Union-style address. It remains to be seen how and if he will address the scandal.

A ‘thin’ ideology

How Orban came to be the self-proclaimed “defender” of Christian, and particularly Catholic, values, was not wholly by design. Orban was born a Calvinist. He is not known to attend church regularly, Scheppele said, like much of the Hungarian population. Just 14% of Hungarians say religion is very important in their lives, according to the 2018 Pew Global Attitudes Survey.

“It’s weird that you get somebody defending Christian Europe when the population is not following any religious rituals,” said Scheppele.

In a 2014 speech to Fidesz insiders thought to be secret, Orban famously said he aimed to turn Hungary into an “illiberal democracy.” After he was berated by the press and his European allies, he soon clarified that he meant “Christian democracy.”

“He said, ‘Oh, well, you know, by illiberal I just mean Christian. Christians are not liberal,’” said Scheppele. She argues that Orban’s supposed ideology is the product of his “laundering his dictatorship comments” into something more palatable.

Orban’s critics say his ideology is thin and malleable. Despite his rampant anti-immigration rhetoric, Hungary allows certain individuals to buy permanent residence, welcoming thousands of immigrants from China, Venezuela and other countries in return for cash. “The Christianity goes out the window when there’s something economic at stake,” said Scheppele.

Orban’s government has often accused its opponents of being sexually deviant. On the same day as Hungary’s parliamentary election in 2022, voters were also asked to take part in a referendum on whether they support promoting content to children relating to their sexual orientation.

The referendum included questions like: “Do you support the unrestricted exposure of minors to sexually explicit media content that may influence their development?” Critics said the questions were so leading that no reasonable person would answer “yes.”

Similar referendums have been held since. Fodor said Hungarians are used to seeing posters saying things like: “99% of people say no to gender ideology. Let’s not dance to the tune of Brussels.”

But since the scandal, the rhetoric weaponized by the government has been used against it by protesters. Some have held placards saying “99% of people say no to pedophilia. They [the government] support pedophilia (and they blame it on us).”

Wounded, not defeated

While the crisis is not likely to remove Orban from power, it may have derailed some of his future political plans. Varga was set to lead Hungary’s “anti-woke” crusade in Brussels ahead of the European elections in June, where Orban could secure a bigger say in European affairs if far-right parties perform well.

But Varga’s resignation means Orban’s project will require a new face. And while Novak’s role was mostly ceremonial, the parliamentary process of electing a new president means the effects of the scandal will not fade swiftly from public view.

Still, the government is demonstrating its skill in “turning the wrath of people away from Orban and finding a scapegoat,” said Fodor.

Much of the public’s anger, she said, has been directed at Zoltan Balog, a Calvinist bishop and former Fidesz cabinet minister who has been implicated in supporting the pardoning of those convicted of child abuse, for which Balog has apologized.

“The media is full of people calling for his resignation. And the fact that he hasn’t resigned is actually very good for Orban, because there’s a lot of public hatred gathering – and it is gathering against Balog,” said Fodor.

The endurance of Europe’s longest-serving leaders is often attributed to their ability to survive scandals. Mark Rutte, the outgoing prime minister of the Netherlands and Europe’s second-longest serving leader after Orban, has been nicknamed “Teflon Mark” for his knack of slipping through scandals which fail to stick to him. Does Orban have these same qualities?

“Teflon is not quite the right metaphor for Orban,” said Scheppele. “Orban engineers escape from tough situations… It’s not because stuff slides off, it’s because he’s got a whole thing operating under the surface to blunt the attack. I suspect that will happen again.”

This post appeared first on cnn.com

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