Hungarian President Pal Schmitt was stripped of his doctorate on Thursday after a months-long plagiarism row that critics say damaged the integrity of his office and sparked calls for his resignation.

His post is largely ceremonial but Schmitt has had an instrumental role in pushing the agenda of his ally conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban, signing bitterly disputed reforms such as retroactive taxes and a $14 billion (8 billion pounds) pension grab into law without ever using his veto power.

The decision by Budapest's Semmelweis University to withdraw Schmitt's doctorate is also an embarrassment for Orban, who called Schmitt the most suitable candidate for president before his appointment by parliament for a five-year term in 2010.

The 69-year-old Schmitt, a two-time Olympic gold medal-winning fencer, has denied wrongdoing since business news portal hvg.hu broke allegations in January that he had copied large parts of his 1992 thesis from other authors without proper quotes or referencing.

After conducting its own inquiry into the allegations, Semmelweis University stripped Schmitt of his title, saying his thesis did not meet scientific and ethical standards, the national news agency MTI reported.

Schmitt, the least popular president since the collapse of communism, has so far resisted calls for his resignation from opposition parties, some media and even an influential group of right-leaning intellectuals who said the country needed a head of state who can be respected at home and abroad.

It is our belief that his staying is also against his own interests, the main right-leaning daily Magyar Nemzet said in an editorial. This is a losing battle. The destruction of the institution and the crumbling of faith in an honourable public life cannot be stopped like this.

An online poll conducted by news portal origo.hu showed 90 percent of some 35,000 respondents thought Schmitt should go.

The case has turned him into the object of satire in the media, with Hungary's most popular daily, the tabloid Blikk, running an image depicting Schmitt with a stethoscope around his neck and a T-shirt saying: I'm a doctor, get over it!

STANDARDS

Two German politicians, including the defence minister, resigned last year after similar accusations of plagiarising economic papers.

But Orban's Fidesz party has backed Schmitt, a former vice president of the European Parliament, saying after the university wrapped up its inquiry this week that it considered the matter closed.

Orban, attending the ceremonial opening of a new Daimler AG car plant in Kecskemet earlier on Thursday, did not address the latest developments in the issue, which overshadowed a rare economic success story for the ailing central European country.

Schmitt, on his way back from a visit to Seoul, was quoted by MTI as saying on Wednesday that he would not resign, adding that the inquiry conclusions were some kind of redress and exonerated him of wrongdoing.

The decision announced on Thursday by Semmelweis University went farther than suggested by its own committee conducting the inquiry.

The committee said that while the 215-page thesis contained unusually large amounts of verbatim translation, it met the formal standards of the time.

It found that 180 pages of Schmitt's thesis, An analysis of the programme of Modern Olympic Games, showed partial overlaps with a study written in French by a Bulgarian sport researcher, and 16 pages were copied from another author, according to a summary of the conclusions released to the media.

Schmitt, a former Fidesz party vice president, received the doctorate from what was then called the Budapest Sports University in 1992, according to the presidential office's website www.keh.hu.

(Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)