Analysis-Hungary abuse scandal threatens Viktor Orban's 'family values' platform

FILE PHOTO: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks on arrival for an EU summit in Brussels

By Krisztina Than

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - A row over a presidential pardon for a man who helped to cover up sexual abuse in a children's home risks damaging the core appeal of the ruling party of Hungary's Viktor Orban: its commitment to family and Christian values.

Veteran conservative Prime Minister Orban has sought to defuse the scandal that brought down two of his key political allies - the president and former justice minister - in a week. But the most challenging period of his 14-year premiership is not over, with the scandal dominating domestic media and popular influencers planning a street protest.

While the turmoil poses no immediate threat to his rule, with 2026 elections still far off, it comes ahead of European parliament elections in June where his party is hoping to gain from a rise in far-right support across Europe.

"It has served to demonstrate the ideological veneer of his presupposed family values and conservative purity," said Roger Hilton, a research fellow at the independent think tank GLOBSEC.

"If (this) continues to be gradually exposed that is where the real risk to Orban's ... survival materializes," Hilton said, adding that Orban should be able to recover from the current setback.

"He may be wounded but his policies are by no means in any impending peril."

Orban's party Fidesz tried to win back the narrative after President Katalin Novak's resignation on Saturday, saying mistakes on its side had consequences unlike those made by the opposition. But the media and opposition have not let go and are now digging into the motives behind the presidential pardon made in April 2023 but first reported by news site 444.hu on Feb. 2.

Orban has not spoken publicly since Thursday, and has made no comment on the two resignations. He is due to hold his state of the nation speech on Saturday, setting out his policy agenda for 2024.

"The Prime Minister has already expressed his views on the pardon issue. The government continues its work as normal," his press chief Bertalan Havasi said in an emailed reply to Reuters questions on Tuesday.

In a bid to contain the political fallout, Orban submitted a constitutional amendment to parliament last week, depriving the president of the right to pardon crimes committed against children. That was interpreted by political analysts as a clear message to Novak - who resigned two days later.

Judit Varga, a former justice minister who signed off on Novak's pardon, stepped down as a Fidesz MP and "resigned from public life".

Orban loyalist Varga was expected to lead Fidesz's list for the European parliament elections and it was not clear who would step into her shoes.

'CHRISTIAN VALUES'

Orban has cast himself as a protector of Christian values against Western liberalism. His campaigns to protect children from what he has described as LGBTQ activists roaming the nation's schools is one of several issues over which he has clashed with the European Commission.

The uncovering of the pardon has triggered a public outcry and nine online influencers, among them hugely popular singer Azahriah, have called for a protest on Friday.

"Irrespective of the (political) sides, we believe it is important for us to speak out in support of a protection of the victims (of abuse), transparency, human dignity and honest public dialogue," the influencers wrote in a Facebook post.

"How many more similar issues there are that we don't know about, and that have been covered up?"

To complicate Orban's task, Peter Magyar, Varga's former husband and a businessman close to Fidesz circles, has unleashed incendiary comments about the inner workings of the government, accusing Antal Rogan, the minister who leads Orban's office, of running a centralised propaganda machine. Magyar clocked up 1.3 million views for an interview he gave to the website Partizan.hu.

Rogan has not publicly commented, and the government spokesperson has not replied to a Reuters' request for comment.

On Tuesday Magyar took aim at Orban's son-in-law, businessman Istvan Tiborcz, questioning in a Facebook post how he had accumulated his wealth. Tiborcz told news television RTL Klub he did not want to take part in "political battles".

Speaking to news site Telex, Orban's press chief Havasi said the government "does not deal with desperate attempts by people in a hopeless situation."

Liberal think tank Political Capital said the scandal still had legs.

"For now, the scandal does not seem to be fading quickly from the public eye," it said in a briefing. "The search for and election of a new president ... is bound to bring the issue back into the public spotlight."

(Writing by Krisztina Than; Editing by Ros Russell)