BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungarian President Pal Schmitt resigned Monday because of a plagiarism scandal regarding a doctoral dissertation he had written 20 years ago on the Olympics.
Schmitt, who was elected to his largely ceremonial office in 2010 for a five-year term, told Parliament he was stepping down because the controversy over his dissertation was dividing Hungary.
“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,” Schmitt said, drawing applause and cheers from opposition lawmakers. “I ask God’s blessing for Hungary and for your work.”
Schmitt, 69, then quickly left the chamber accompanied by Prime Minister Viktor Orban as lawmakers from the governing parties — Orban’s Fidesz and the Christian Democrats — gave him a standing ovation.
Parliament later voted 338-5, with six abstentions, to accept Schmitt’s resignation.
Last week, Schmitt’s 1992 doctorate from Semmelweis University was revoked after a university committee found that most of his thesis about the modern Olympic Games had been copied from two other authors.
The International Olympic Committee said Monday it would review the case and decide whether any action is needed against Schmitt, who has been an IOC member since 1983. Schmitt, who won gold medals at the 1968 and 1972 Olympics for fencing, could face IOC sanctions for tarnishing the Olympic movement.
Hungary’s governing coalition said it would hold talks with the three other parliamentary parties to find a successor. Speaker Laszlo Kover will replace Schmitt until a new president is elected by lawmakers in the next 30 days.
Schmitt’s resignation — a day after he told state radio he would not step down — comes at a turbulent time in Hungarian politics. Orban, who had made his name by protesting Hungary’s communist dictatorship, is now being criticized for pushing the Eastern European nation toward centralized rule.
The European Union, which Hungary joined in 2004, has launched legal proceedings against Hungary because it believes that Orban’s coalition, which has an unassailable two-thirds majority in Parliament, is compromising democratic principles such as the independence of the central bank and judiciary with new laws.
The conservative government has also changed the country’s media law, a move widely criticized for boosting political control over the press.
Late in 2011, Hungary surprisingly asked the EU and the International Monetary Fund for financial assistance as its currency fell to all-time lows against the euro. However, official talks with the lenders have yet to start, partially because legal changes demanded by the EU and the IMF have yet to be seen.
The laws challenged by the EU, including a few that were partially struck down by Hungary’s own Constitutional Court, are among the hundreds of bills passed by Parliament over the past 18 months and signed by Schmitt.
The pressure on Schmitt had been building up. Tivadar Tulassay, the head of Semmelweis University, resigned Sunday saying he had backed the decision to revoke Schmitt’s degree but lost the confidence of the Ministry of National Resources, which oversees educational affairs.
Orban himself had avoided the issue by saying the president enjoyed immunity and that only Schmitt himself could decide to resign.
During most of his speech Monday, Schmitt defended his doctorate and said he would appeal its revocation at the university and, if needed, in the courts.
“This is a matter of honor, and my conscience is clear,” Schmitt said, adding that he was the victim of a political attack. He said would write a new doctoral dissertation about the relationship between sports and environmental protection.
Schmitt is the first Hungarian president to resign since the end of communism in 1990. Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany resigned in 2009, a few months after Hungary received a €20 billion ($26.6 billion) bailout from the IMF and other creditors.