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Hungary’s anti-LGBT law: straight from the populist playbook?

Richard C. M. Mole

On 15 June 2021 the Hungarian parliament passed a law banning the promotion of positive representations of homosexuality and gender reassignment to children – akin to Russia’s so-called ‘gay propaganda’ law of 2013. Despite Viktor Orbán’s claim that the law did not seek to discriminate against homosexuals but rather sought to protect children, the law prompted a swift reaction from the Hungarian opposition, human rights groups and members of the international community.

But if Viktor Orbán has been driven by a desire to protect Hungarian children from homosexuality, why wait until now to take action? He has been Prime Minister since 2010 and has thus had 11 years to deal with this supposed ‘threat’. To understand the timing of the introduction of the law, we need only to look at Orbán’s likely inspiration – Vladimir Putin. When the Russian ‘gay propaganda’ law was introduced in 2013, Putin had been in power for over a decade but was beginning to lose popular support and thus needed to find a new way to legitimise his rule, i.e. offer voters a new reason to vote for him. Putin therefore targeted the LGBT community, presenting it as a threat to the Russian family, Russian children and Russian traditional values. The parallels with Hungary are clear. Orbán has also been in power for over a decade and is seeing his popularity wane, in this case, as a result of his handling of the COVID pandemic. (Hungary has the highest per capita death rate after Peru.) As is often the case when politicians’ political fortunes are felt to be under threat, Orbán has sought a scapegoat to divert attention from his problems at home. Previously, refugees played this role in Hungary (as well as Poland) but they are no longer as effective as they once were and so a new scapegoat had to be found in the LGBT community.

Choosing to scapegoat the queer community makes political sense for a number of reasons. Attacking homosexuality allows Orbán to shore up support among his conservative voters by claiming to protect traditional Hungarian values from the spread of Western liberal ideas. As LGBT individuals are more visible and homosexuality more accepted in many Western states, it is easy for populists like Orbán to argue that homosexuality is specifically Western and that acceptance of homosexuality is being forced onto Hungarian society from outside; it is therefore legitimate to restrict the rights of LGBT people or legislate against this so-called ‘foreign ideology’. In addition, as support for LGBT equality is considered a specifically liberal value, attacking homosexuality is also a useful way to delegitimise liberal politics in general. Even if more liberal politicians in Hungary are not specifically advocates of gay rights, the association between homosexuality and liberalism is enough to discredit liberal policies more generally. Also, despite the fact that research shows that homosexuals are no more prone to be paedophiles than heterosexuals, conflating homosexuality and paedophilia (as both the Hungarian and Russian laws have implicitly done) is a very effective means of generating support, as the desire to protect children is innate in all of us. Conflating homosexuality and paedophilia also makes it less likely that people will criticise anti-LGBT legislation for fear of being seen implicitly to support paedophilia.

Despite the fact that, in the past, Hungary has undermined the rule of law, attacked the freedom of the press, clamped down on freedom of association and contravened international refugee law with limited push-back from other states of the European Union (with the German government perhaps more concerned about its economic interests in Hungary), the introduction of the anti-LGBT law provoked criticism from the Commission and the leaders of 17 EU member-states, who signed a letter condemning the law as an affront to the EU’s values. The Commission announced that it was taking legal action, arguing that the legislation violated several EU laws and principles. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte went so far as to suggest that, if Hungary was unwilling to support EU values, it should leave the European Union.

While criticism of the law is commendable, this strategy could end up playing into Orbán’s hands. It is noticeable that only two of the signatories of the letter criticising the law were from post-communist states (Estonia and Latvia), making it easy for Orbán to present this as a battle between corrupt Western liberal elites and the pure Hungarian people. The proposed referendum on the new law will undoubtedly (due to the very loaded language of the questions) support the government’s position, allowing it to claim that they are simply representing the volonté générale of the Hungarian people. Having seen how Putin successfully responded to the same sort of criticism in the same way, drawing on the various strategies of the populist playbook, the introduction of the law and the international response could turn out to be a win-win situation for Orbán.

The author is a researcher on the POPREBEL project. This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 822682.