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We Need to Talk About Viktor: Hungarian LGBTQ+ Rights Under Authoritarian Rule


A Most Unsavoury Innovator


Viewed through the prism of human rights, populist radical right parties and their leaders make for an unsavoury assortment of actors who routinely weaponise the issues of minorities for political gain. Yet within this delightful pantheon of antagonists, the leader of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, Viktor Orbán, is truly in a league of his own. 


His turn towards authoritarianism and treatment of minorities such as LGBTQ+ populations is both breathtaking in its scale and chillingly effective in its execution. Meanwhile, his flagrant contempt for the ‘European Project’ has stunned the European Union (EU) which has struggled to repproach this renegade for a whole swathe of misdemeanours. 


Conversely, Orbán’s ‘successes’ have been much lauded by other radical right parties across the continent, many of which have adopted his playbook in their own countries once in power. As Orban himself has proudly stated:


“Hungary is actually an incubator where experiments are done on the future of conservative policies. Hungary is the place where we didn’t just talk about defeating the progressives and liberals and causing a conservative Christian political turn, but we actually did it”

(PBSO, 2023)


Worried? We should be. As the Hungarian-Austrian author Paul Lendvai commented: 


“...never has the future for the liberal values of the Enlightenment seemed so bleak” (2019).


An Opportunistic Idealogue


It hasn’t always been like this. It’s hard to believe now, but Orban and his fledgling Fidesz party started as a centre-left outfit. Yet as Fidesz’s political fortunes waxed and waned over the decades, Orban increasingly shifted the party to the right, potentially motivated more by strategy than any ideological awakening. Regardless, by the time of the 2010 elections, the transformation was complete, with Orbán running a campaign with populist nationalism at its heart. Fidesz won the election with a landslide victory, and Orbán swiftly set about dismantling the democratic checks and balances that might threaten his power in the years to come. 


Within months, Orbán pushed through a new constitution, despite this never appearing in Fidesz’s manifesto, which, along with other dramatic consequences, targeted the independence of the judiciary, allowing the party to govern unfettered by the rule of law. Orbán then introduced a staggering 365 new bills to parliament which further consolidated Fidesz’s grip on power.


One observer commented it was ‘an unprecedented legislative tsunami, not comparable even to the transition from communism’ (Deák, 2013, cited in ECPS, 2018). 

By 2014, Orbán gave a now infamous speech in Romania where he legitimised these radical changes as necessary for building an ‘illiberal state’. Liberal democracy, he argued, had fallen foul of ‘corruption, sex and violence’ and was no longer capable of serving the national interest. Hungary’s new ‘illiberal democracy’ would thus ‘harmonise the relationship between the interests [...] of individuals [...] with interests and achievements of the community, and the nation’ (The Budapest Beacon, 2014).


The speech was laden with euphemism, as Orbán sought to present his new agenda in a positive light. Nonetheless, it alluded to a defence of majoritarianism, whereby the interests of the majority (and the state) should take priority over those of minorities. This suggestion was soon borne out in reality, with the rights of migrants, religious minorities, Roma, and LGBTQ+ populations all soon either restricted or else violated.


Death by a Thousand Cuts: LGBTQ+ Rights in Hungary


For starters, although civil partnerships had come into force in 2009, the new constitution effectively killed any prospect of same-sex marriage by explicitly redefining the union as being one between a man and a woman. Later, in 2020, Justice Minister Judit Varga leaned on the constitution’s definition to outlaw same-sex adoption by limiting this right to married couples only.


2020 was quite the year, in fact. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic enabled Orbán to declare a state of emergency, giving himself yet more sweeping executive powers in the process. One of his first acts was to bring forward a bill which effectively banned trans and intersex people from legally changing gender. 


Then in 2021 came the so-called ‘Propaganda Law’ which severely restricts the  "depiction and promotion" of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations within public spheres.


According to a recent report from Amnesty International, the law has had a dramatic and harmful effect on everything from Civil Society campaigning to media censorship to book publishing, while increasing stigma and discrimination against the queer community.

Even more chillingly, in April 2023 Fidesz sought to bring in supposed ‘whistleblowing’ protections for anyone reporting on same-sex couples or trans people who might be considered violating the “Hungarian way of life”. The legislation was so extreme that the then-Hungarian President and Fidesz loyalist, Katalin Novák, rejected the bill as unconstitutional in a rare rebuff of the party’s anti-LGBTQ+ agenda. While the bill was unsuccessful, the climate of fear amongst Hungary’s queer community was undoubtedly heightened as a result.


Europe Finally Rolls Up Its Sleeves


For years, the EU’s strategy for handling Hungary’s democratic backsliding and rights violations appeared to be one of strategic patience, no matter how severely tested that patience might be. This was largely because the EU has historically had only limited powers to discipline wayward member states. Instead, the bloc seemingly prayed that each transgression would be Hungary’s last. 


Yet the Propaganda Law was considered a step too far, with the European Commission taking the unprecedented move of suing Hungary through the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for violating Article 2 of the Treaty of Europe (TEU). Fifteen individual member states and the European Parliament have subsequently joined the lawsuit, making it ‘the most supported human rights case in the history of the European Union’, according to the think tank, the Heinrich Böll Foundation. 


The ECJ is expected to rule on the case later this summer and has the potential to significantly strengthen protections for the EU’s LGBTQ+ citizens by signalling that the TEU unequivocally upholds the rights of sexual and gender minorities. 

And this is not Hungary’s only headache. Having now seemingly decided enough is enough, the EC has also invoked new powers (brought in specifically to deal with the likes of Orbán), enabling it to withhold EU funds allocated to the country. The current outstanding tab amounts to roughly €20 billion, which EC President, Ursula von der Leyen, has said will not be disbursed until Hungary meets certain conditions relating to both LGBTQ+ and asylum rights. Orbán branded the move ‘blackmail’ and said he would not be deterred.


Then there’s always the threat of Article 7(2) of the TEU - the so-called ‘nuclear option’ -  which would see the suspension of Hungary’s membership and voting rights. With Hungary’s growing tally of “serious and persistent breaches of EU values”, this option remains on the table, though it would also take the bloc into unchartered territory, having never been used against a member state before, leaving many nervous about the potential for unpredictable consequences as a result.


Practice What You Preach: The False Defence of Traditional Family Values


Alongside these international pressures, Orbán has also found himself embroiled in scandal in Hungary itself in recent months, due to the pardoning of a government official who had been convicted of covering up numerous cases of child sex abuse within state-run orphanages.


As well as exposing inherent corruption and cronyism within the ruling party, the case smacked of hypocrisy, given that Fidesz has consistently targeted LGBTQ+ people in supposed defence of traditional, Christian, family values.

Mass protests followed, leading to ministerial resignations. However, with Orbán’s grip over the party all but total, few believe the pardon could have happened without his say-so, leaving Fidesz’s leader in a politically precarious position for once.


Then there’s the one-time Fidesz loyalist, Peter Magyar, who defected from the party to set up the Respect and Freedom (Tisza) party, and who is pulling no punches in publicly exposing and denouncing the corruption at the heart of Orbán’s government. Magyar has quickly shaken up Hungarian politics, making significant gains in the recent European Parliament elections at the expense of Fidesz.


The Survivor and The Scapegoat


The political waters that Obán currently finds himself swimming in are undoubtedly hotter than usual. But over the decades he has proved himself the great survivor, and it would be remiss to believe he is going anywhere any time soon.


On the contrary, Orbán is gearing up for increased influence on the European stage. In July, the country will take its turn as the President of the European Council - a situation that the European Parliament has voiced alarm over, given the powers the role bestows on incumbents. 


As for Orbán’s domestic controversies, history tells us that when right-wing populists are pushed into a corner, increasing persecution of LGBTQ+ populations can offer a convenient distraction from political woes.

At this juncture, it seems impossible to say if the gathering clouds are a sign of yet more tumultuous times ahead for Hungary’s beleaguered queer community, or if we are witnessing the first hints of a rainbow.


Article By Ross Othen-Reeves


Bibliography


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