, BUDAPEST, Apr 2 – Hungary’s President Pal Schmitt, a close ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, caved in Monday to mounting pressure to quit after being stripped of his 1992 doctorate title for plagiarism last week.
“Under the constitution, the president must represent the unity of the Hungarian nation. I have unfortunately become a symbol of division, I feel it is my duty to leave my position,” Schmitt told parliament.
“I feel it is my duty to surrender my mandate as president,” he added.
Schmitt, 69, a former Olympic fencing gold medallist, leaves the ceremonial post less than two years after he took over the presidency in June 2010.
Rumours he might resign first arose on Friday, a day after Budapest’s Semmelweis University stripped him of his PhD, but Schmitt clung on, insisting that he could “see no link” between the plagiarism affair and a need for him to resign.
The university found last week that the president copied “word-for-word” large passages of another writer’s work in his thesis on the history of the Olympic Games.
In parliament Monday, Schmitt insisted he had done “honest work” and claimed the university had “no right” to strip him of his doctorate, adding that he might take legal action to get it back.
He also said he would prepare a new doctorate on sports and the environment.
Opposition parties welcomed Schmitt’s departure, but hinted that a change in the way the president is chosen — at present he or she is elected by parliament, not by the Hungarian people — could be needed.
“The presidential honour has been so greatly undermined that a mere change of presidents will not do,” said far-right Jobbik leader Vona Gabor.
“The only way to restore confidence is to have immediate (direct) presidential elections.”
Others also saw Schmitt’s departure as a sign that Orban’s power was waning.
“This should be a sign for the prime minister as well, that his will, his power is not limitless. The people’s backbone is stronger than the PM’s will,” said Socialist party leader Attila Mesterhazy.
“Your leader is not immune to mistakes, and that sets limits to your powers as well,” he told the deputies of Orban’s centre-right Fidesz party, who hold an overwhelming majority in parliament.
Since coming to power in April 2010 in a landslide election win, Orban’s government has installed close allies in key posts such as the presidency, the state audit office and the judiciary.
Orban had mostly stayed out of the debate over Schmitt, telling public radio Friday that the president alone must make the decision on whether he should resign, while opposition parties had called on him to step down.
In Germany, then defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was also forced to resign last year over allegations that he too plagiarised his doctoral thesis.