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President clings to his seat

April 2nd, 2012

Whatever their political affiliations, Hungary’s daily newspapers are united in regretting  President Pál Schmitt’s refusal to resign, despite being stripped of his doctoral title by the Semmelweis University in Budapest.

The President told Hungarian Public Television on Friday that he had no intention of resigning, and thought the decision to deprive him of his title was unfair. He denied all accusations according to which he plagiarised his doctoral thesis two decades ago. (See Budapost, January through March 2012)

In a front page editorial, Népszabadság contends that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán would have preferred the President to resign, but Mr Schmitt “unexpectedly showed his bristles and took the first really autonomous decision of his presidency. Those who had hitherto thought of him as a puppet were stunned to see that “he is ready to sign anything but his own resignation.” The reason, Népszabadság believes, is that Mr Schmitt has lost touch with reality. “A man is crumbling before our eyes. Hungary’s President is being morally pulverised.”

Magyar Narancs does not buy the story that Mr Schmitt is acting on his own initiative, even at the price of embarrassing the Prime Minister. He certainly has been criticised by an array of right-wing intellectuals and newspapers, which has induced many observers to believe that Mr Orbán was behind such criticism. According to Magyar Narancs, however, right-wing intellectual criticism of the President was sparked off by those conservative academics who are in close contact with the international scientific community and who would have risked their international reputations by ignoring the obvious facts. Magyar Narancs thinks the legend about an autonomous and stubborn president refusing to resign in defiance of the explicit wish of the Prime Minister, is a public relations exercise aimed at keeping Mr Orbán as far as possible from this unpleasant case.

In komment.hu, Albert Gazda offers a similar explanation: Schmitt “has been left on his own, so let him fight his own struggle if he can.” The governing élite is trying to distance itself from the President’s plagiarism case, by describing Mr Schmitt as an autonomous personality whose decisions cannot be influenced by the parliamentary majority and who therefore has to bear the consequences of his own deeds. The opposition parties, on the other hand, are trying to drive home their own message, that as Mr Schmitt was chosen by the Prime Minister, Mr Orbán must be held responsible for what has happened. Gazda thinks the opposition is in a better position to persuade the public. He is therefore convinced that the President will have to resign in the not too distant future. Great resignations are not announced at once. (Germany’s former president) Christian Wulff and (former Prime Minister) Berlusconi (of Italy) remained in office for months,” after their own scandals  blew up.

HVG’s radically anti-government commentator does not mince his words: “Even the loyalty of public actors known for their pro-government leanings was overwhelmed by Pál Schmitt’s stench.” The columnist, Árpád W. Tóta thinks that those right-wing intellectuals who have openly called on Mr Schmitt to resign knew exactly what the preferences of the Prime Minister were, but found it impossible to act accordingly. The commentator believes that they should also turn away from Mr Orbán, for it was the premier who sent Mr Schmitt to the Sándor Palace (the Presidential office in the Buda Castle). This was a mistake, according to Tóta, since he believes Mr Schmitt has been a puppet. But, he adds, the premier is refusing to admit his mistake, and by doing so is sending the wrong message, after his protégé has been officially declared “an embezzler”. The Prime Minister’s behaviour means that “rather than admitting that he misjudged his candidate, it turns out that this is precisely why he likes him.”

In a short but sharp editorial, Hírszerző describes Mr Schmitt as “Hungary’s Borat”. The left-liberal author suggests the President does not understand what the problem is. He does not see why his thesis is problematic, nor does he understand the report the fact-finding committee published on his doctorate. “He simply is unable to make sense of it all.” That is precisely what reminds Hirszerző of Borat, the dumb Kazakh journalist impersonated by Sacha Baron Cohen, who just does not understand the Western world. But that was a joke. “Our President has managed to perform the same act in all seriousness – congratulations!”

Jobbklikk (Right Click), a conservative opinion website that has often been critical of the government recently, calls upon the left-wing media to be as critical of left-w ing politicians as the conservative media has been of President Pál Schmitt. He reminds his left-wing colleagues of their silence whenever their own political idols were caught red-handed in the past. The first President of the Republic, Free Democrat Árpád Göncz, whose 90th birthday was celebrated recently with great reverence, anti-constitutionally prevented an attempt to put an end to the taxi drivers blockade of the bridges of Budapest in 1990. Four years later, their Prime Minister Gyula Horn answered “so what?” when he was confronted with evidence of his activity in the communist militia that took revenge on the revolutionaries after the Hungarian uprising was crushed by the Soviet Union in 1956. Their next premier, Péter Medgyessy turned out to have been a secret agent, and the left wing press never demanded his resignation. Their longest serving premier, Ferenc Gyurcsány, after a dubious past involved in the privatisation of state property, admitted having lied and mismanaged public finances in order to win a second term. The president of the National Bank, another favourite of the left-wing press, once kept his wealth abroad in an offshore account. The left-wing press never called on any of those personalities to resign. Their right-wing counterparts have now set an example, and Jobbklikk hopes leftist journalists will take this excellent opportunity to emulate them and put an end to the fatal division of the Hungarian media landscape. All they have to do is support the latest proposals to ban former leading communist officials from public office, Jobbklikk writes.

In Magyar Hírlap, Zsolt Bayer calls the left wing pundits „hyckals”, creating his own hybrid of hyenas and jackals, because of the cruel manhunt they have staged against President Pál Schmidt.  He describes „hyckals” as a species according to whom “democracy means that they are entitled to crucify whomsoever they choose.” Meanwhile, Bayer also believes that the President should resign, as “his position is untenable.” He acknowledges that “copy-pasting” is not an acceptable method of compiling a doctoral thesis, but is convinced that on the other side of the political spectrum there must be abundant examples of the same kind of irregularities. Bayer therefore invites his fact-finding colleagues to seek out examples of plagiarism in the doctoral theses of left-wing public personalities. He reminds Schmitt’s left-wing persecutors of the President’s merits as an Olympic champion and successful diplomat, and concludes by declaring that “…he is worth a thousand times more than you. Even including his (plagiarised) doctoral thesis.”

Heti Válasz calls on the President to revise his decision and step down. In an unsigned editorial, expressing the official stance of the weekly rather than the opinion of one columnist, Pál Schmitt is described as a fencer who keeps fighting when the bout is long over and lost. Heti Válasz does not mind if Pál Schmitt intends to defend himself against the charges and write a PhD thesis to prove his skills, but thinks that he should do so as a private citizen, not as President of the Republic. Otherwise he will not only put his own prestige at risk, but will also jeopardise his country’s reputation, Heti Válasz concludes.