Hungarian president steps down, robbing hard-line government of rubber stamp

Amid accusations of plagiarism in his doctoral dissertation, Hungarian President Schmitt announced his resignation today.

Bernadett Szabo/Reuters
Hungarian President Pal Schmitt (l.) addresses lawmakers during an unscheduled appearance in parliament in Budapest April 2, 2012. Schmitt, who was stripped of his doctorate last week in a plagiarism row, announced on Monday that he will resign from his post.

Hungarian President Pal Schmitt stepped down today, days after his alma mater revoked his doctorate amid findings that he had plagiarized most of his dissertation.

“When my personal matters divide my beloved nation, instead of unify it, I feel obligated to end my service and resign my presidential mandate,” Mr. Schmitt said in a televised address to Parliament.

To the very end, Schmitt protested that he followed university rules to the best of his knowledge, but he chose to stand down as president in hopes of quelling a public outcry.

The early uncertainty over whether Schmitt would resign was seen as a democratic test for Hungary: Would his Fidesz party, which holds a majority in Parliament, relent to public pressure on an embattled official, or would it find a way to cling to its political interests? Though the presidency is largely a ceremonial office, Schmitt was regularly criticized for rubber-stamping every law approved by conservative Fidesz since it gained a two-thirds majority in 2010. 

While previous presidents came from legal backgrounds and occasionally returned legislation to lawmakers for review, Schmitt was perceived by critics as a puppet who didn't question Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Some of the new laws under the Orban administration – including tightened executive control over the judiciary, media, personal data, and state bank – are under investigation by the European Union. The European Commission is determining whether they violate EU law amid concerns that Orban is shifting Hungary away from democracy and closer to authoritarian rule.

With its two-thirds control, Fidesz will surely vote in a successor to Schmitt from among its ranks. But the challenge for Orban and his party is to name a new president who similarly toes the party line, but appeals to a disillusioned constituency.

Schmitt gained celebrity for his success as an athlete in the Olympic Games, where he twice won gold medals in fencing, but that popularity diminished after his entry into politics.

Semmelweis University stripped Schmitt of his degree on March 29, following a fact-finding committee’s report that the majority of his 1992 dissertation on the modern Olympic Games had been stolen from other sources, according to the university website. University head Theodore Tulassay resigned yesterday.

Rumors of Schmitt's plagiarism emerged in Hungarian media in January, but Schmitt vehemently resisted mounting calls for his resignation from the public and across the political spectrum until four days after the university rescinded his diploma.

Schmitt appeared on state television the day after he lost his degree to say it had nothing to do with his duties as president. He added that obtaining a doctorate was a family dream, and he would prove himself by writing a new dissertation.

The Schmitt scandal has captivated Hungarians, who have responded with Internet memes that spoof his former “doctor” title and the rhetorical blunders he was known for making.

Attacks on Schmitt have come from every corner of the political opposition – from far-right Jobbik to the green party, Politics Can Be Different (LMP).

“I think this symbolizes the hypocrisy of the ruling Fidesz,” LMP member of parliament David Dorosz told the Monitor. “They think they can do anything and can put any friend, regardless of skill, to ruling the country.”

He and a handful of colleagues set up tents outside the president’s office at Sandor Palace on March 30 and vowed to remain until Schmitt ceded his post.

Activists like Daniel Gardonyi found Schmitt's defense unconvincing. “As a politician and as a president, it’s not really an honorable thing to stay,” said Mr. Gardonyi, a politically unaffiliated citizen who joined the protest at Sandor Palace.

Parliamentary speaker Laszlo Kover of Fidesz will serve as president until Fidesz appoints a replacement.

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