Hungary’s President Resigns Over Plagiarism Scandal—and the Opposition Pounces

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Hungarian President Pal Schmitt waits before delivering a speech at the parliament in Budapest April 2, 2012

Pal Schmitt’s resignation as Hungary’s president is a scandal of Olympic proportions. The 69-year old—who was elected to the largely ceremonial role of president in 2010—stands accused of copying word-for-word large sections of his 1992 doctoral thesis on the history of the Olympic Games. It’s a topic you’d think Schmitt, a member of the International Olympic Committee, would know rather well. He won gold medals in fencing at the 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games.

The storm that brought Schmitt down on April 2 started gathering momentum in January. That’s when HVG, a weekly Hungarian newspaper, reported that the “majority” of the president’s doctoral thesis—submitted when he was 49 years old—had been translated word-for-word from a French text written by Nikolai Georgiev, a deceased Bulgarian diplomat. (The newspaper had previously criticized Schmitt’s office for spelling errors in its New Year’s message, posted on his official website).  A week later, index.hu—one of Hungary’s most popular Internet news sites—uncovered 17 more pages of potentially plagiarized text. It claimed Schmitt’s conclusions had been translated from an English-language dissertation by German professor Klaus Heinemann. Heinemann wrote his paper in 1991—around the time Schmitt would have been in the throws of his own doctoral thesis.

In Hungary—a small country that has produced 11 Nobel Prize winners (and far more if you count Hungarians who immigrated to the U.S. and elsewhere)—intellectual achievement is highly prized and academics held in high regard. So when Budapest’s Semmelweis University revoked Schmitt’s PhD on March 29, you could sense his end days were near. Even so, as recently as April 1, Schmitt remained defiant, telling a Hungarian radio station that there was “no link” between the plagiarism scandal and his ability to carry out his duties. But moral opprobrium has a way of getting under one’s skin. Schmitt decided to remove himself from the hot seat the next day.

(MORE: Why Hungary’s Youth Are Angry — and Drifting to the Far Right)

“In this situation, when my personal issue divides my beloved nation instead of uniting it, I feel it to be my personal duty to finish my service and resign from my presidential mandate,” he told parliament on April 2. Later, in a letter of resignation, he said he did so “in the interests of Hungary and of national unity.”

Schmitt’s resignation comes at a time of escalating turbulence in Budapest. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, head of the center-right Fidesz Party, has enjoyed a two-thirds majority in Hungary’s parliament since winning the 2010 elections in a landslide. In the past two years, he’s pushed through more than 350 laws and a new constitution, which the international community has criticized for restricting democracy and boosting the government’s power. On March 19, the Council of Europe condemned Hungary’s recent reform of its judicial system, suggesting it undermines “the right to a fair trial.” Among other things, it slammed a motion that forces the early retirement of judges, paving the way for the current government to offset checks and balances by appointing its own charges.

Orban’s re-writing of Hungarian laws has also jeopardized the country’s chances of averting a recession. In November, the government requested a bailout from the E.U. and the International Monetary Fund as ratings agencies slashed Hungary’s credit rating, and the forint—the national currency—fell to a record low against the euro. But the IMF has refused to start talks until Hungary proves that independent institutions like the country’s central bank can operate free of government influence. Orban previously introduced legislation allowing cabinet ministers to participate in meetings of the central bank’s monetary council. Among other things, it requires the bank to provide detailed outlines of meeting agendas to the government in advance, and obliges council members to swear their loyalty to the country. In response, the European Commission launched court proceedings against Hungary in January, claiming Budapest had violated E.U. laws protecting the judiciary and independence of the central bank.

Even the art world has rebuked Orban for his perceived authoritarianism. Ferenc Csak, the former director of Hungary’s National Gallery, resigned just before Orban opened a government-organized exhibition in January. The show chronicles 1,000 years of Hungarian history and, according to the museum’s web site,  helps visitors “review the fateful events and the most famous heroes of the Hungarian history.” It includes an image of Orban. “The government shouldn’t have the power to order exhibitions with such a high political agenda,” Csak told the Art Newspaper. “Museums shouldn’t be getting involved in politics.”

Orban uses his credentials as a freedom fighter to fend off the criticism and weave a narrative of heroism. He came to prominence in the late 1980s when he helped found Fidesz, whose acronym stands for “Alliance of Young Democrats.” In rousing public speeches, he demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops and called for free elections in Communist Hungary. With a similar fire in his belly, he lashed out at the E.U. on March 16 during a public address marking the country’s 1848 revolution against Hapsburg rule. “We will not be a colony,” he told a crowd of more than 100,000. “Hungarians won’t live according to the commands of foreign powers. They won’t give up their independence or their freedom.”

Hungary’s opposition hope Schmitt’s departure will pave the way for reform: he signed into law the controversial constitution and the series of draconian laws drafted by Fidesz parliamentarians. Currently the nation’s parliament selects the president. Socialist Party leader Atilla Mesterhazy is now calling for direct elections by the people—a move he and other opposition politicians hope will prevent another Orban sympathizer from filling the seat. “This should be a sign for the prime minister, as well, that his will, his power is not limitless,” Mesterhazy told parliamentarians. “The people’s backbone is stronger than the PM’s will… Your leader is not immune to mistakes, and that sets limits to your powers as well.”

Schmitt isn’t backing down, and says he will fight to clear his name. “This is a matter of honor, and my conscience is clear,” he said during his resignation speech. Even so, the International Olympic Committee will review his case to decide whether Schmitt deserves to lose his seat, which he has held since 1983. Like any athlete, though, Schmitt, will press ahead. He plans to appeal to Semmelweis University to re-instate his PhD, and will submit a new dissertation exploring the relationship between sports and environmental protection. Perhaps Orban will follow Schmitt’s lead and attempt to undo a few wrongs of his own.

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Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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