Orbán pledges to support Sweden’s membership of NATO in an attempt to dispel the internal scandal

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Hungary will approve Sweden’s membership of NATO, Viktor Orbán said in his first public appearance since the resignation of a close ally last week amid a growing domestic political crisis.

In his annual state of the nation address on Saturday, Hungary’s prime minister said parliament will sign off on Sweden’s accession to the defense pact when its spring session begins this month. Hungary will be the last NATO member state to do so.

“The good news is that our disagreement with Sweden is coming to an end,” Orbán said. “We have taken important steps with the Swedish Prime Minister to rebuild trust and are headed towards ratifying Sweden’s membership in NATO.”

The move comes as he seeks to quell a rare domestic revolt against his government. Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Budapest on Friday evening in the latest in a series of protests against the controversial pardon granted by a member of Orbán’s government to a convicted criminal.

Katalin Novák, an ally of Orbán, resigned as the country’s president last weekend after becoming embroiled in the dispute over the pardon granted to a man who was convicted as an accomplice for helping to cover up a case of sexual abuse in an orphanage. Judit Varga, leader of the governing Fidesz party’s list for the 2024 European Parliament elections, has also resigned.

Another former Orbán minister and the prime minister’s spiritual leader, Zoltán Balog, was forced to resign as head of the Reformed Church in Hungary on Friday after admitting that he had urged Novák to sign the pardon.

However, the measures were not enough to calm the protesters who see the scandal as proof of the hypocrisy of Orbán’s party. Fidesz has long touted its reputation as an advocate of family values, including the introduction of anti-LGBTQ laws that it calls “child protection.”

In his speech to supporters on Saturday, Orbán tried to place all the blame for the scandal on Novák. “Her decision weakened the unity of the nation, which she could not re-establish,” he said, adding that it was “like a nightmare.”

The Hungarian leader, one of Europe’s strongest supporters of NATO skeptic Donald Trump, is locked in a long-running dispute with other EU member states over his waning loyalty to Western alliances amid the war in Ukraine and over his country’s steps towards becoming a self-styled “illiberal democracy”.

Protesters gathered in Budapest on Friday evening to show their disapproval of the Orban government © Bloomberg

Budapest has been reluctant to send aid to Ukraine or approve Sweden’s NATO membership, citing disrespect and frequent criticism from Stockholm.

Orbán’s domestic critics have accused him of many of the same things for which he has attracted international criticism, including the erosion of liberal democracy. In his speech, Orbán invoked this opposition as “the risk we face every day,” lamenting that “the independence and sovereignty of the nation are [being] targeted” by powerful external forces.

The scandal is particularly dangerous for Orbán as it threatens to erode his support among key supporters, many of whom view the government as complicit in the case.

“I am deeply disgusted,” said György, a 60-year-old engineer from Budapest, who declined to give his full name for fear of repercussions. He said it was the first time he had participated in a protest against Orbán, for whom he had voted several times. “Never again. This makes me feel that our side is no better than the communist side,” he said.

The protest drew a huge crowd to Heroes’ Square, a Budapest landmark where Orbán achieved international fame in 1989 when, at age 26, he spoke at a rally calling for the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country.

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