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With LGBTQ+ rights in the spotlight, Hungary prepares for a political showdown

Upcoming referendum will be a test of opposition to Viktor Orbán’s ‘illiberal democracy’

Daniel Nolan
4 August 2021, 9.59am
Formula One driver Sebastian Vettel wears a 'Same Love' T-shirt for the national anthems at the Hungarian Grand Prix, 1 August 2021
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James Moy / Alamy Stock Photo

Politics and sport are an increasingly potent mix – and nowhere more so than in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, where Formula One drivers Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel made a stand for LGBTQ+ rights last weekend.

In Hungary to compete at the Grand Prix event they have dominated for the past decade, the British and German pair spoke out against the upcoming referendum on Orbán’s so-called ‘child protection law’, an anti-paedophilia bill that was later augmented to prohibit the showing of “any content portraying or promoting sex reassignment or homosexuality” to under-18s.

Hamilton called the referendum “unacceptable, cowardly and misguiding [sic]” in an Instagram post on Thursday. Vettel, who sported a ‘Same Love’ rainbow shirt as the Hungarian national anthem played, said: “I find it embarrassing for a country that is in the European Union having to vote or having some laws like this.” Many F1 pit crew also wore rainbow wristbands to show solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community.

The booing that punctuated Hamilton’s post-race interview was purely sports-related: in fact, Hungarians increasingly share his views on LGBTQ+ issues. An Ipsos poll conducted in April and May found that 59% of Hungarians believe that gay couples should have the same adoption rights as heterosexual couples – a figure that was only 42% as recently as 2013.

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With a general election due in April, Orbán’s decision to double down and hold a referendum on the child protection law is a risky gambit at home and abroad. European Commission (EC) President Ursula Von der Leyen described the law as “shameful” and the EC has also for the first time invoked against Hungary an infringement procedure citing Article 2 of the Treaty of the EU, which defines the bloc’s common values.

High-profile politicians from Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party were quick to respond to Hamilton’s comments: Hungary’s justice minister, Judit Varga, said he should stick to driving and expressed regret that Hamilton had “joined the camp of international fake news producers by attacking our child protection law”. Tamás Deutsch, an MEP and founding member of Fidesz, tweeted: “Lewis Hamilton has seven world championships, a knighthood, a rainbow opinion, but no child. That’s it.”

Back to the old days

None of this was what the then-boss of Formula One Bernie Ecclestone had in mind in 1986, when he realised a long-held dream of taking the event beyond the Iron Curtain. At that time Hungary was generally viewed as the most liberal of the Warsaw Pact countries, and when 200,000 fans from all over the region turned out for Hungary’s first Formula One in August 1986 – hot on the heels of Queen’s epochal concert in Budapest two weeks earlier – the Eastern Bloc’s opening up to the West started to reach critical mass.

The liberalisation of socialist Hungary began in the wake of the 1956 Uprising against the Soviets. While Hungary’s brutal post-war leader, Matyás Rákosi, had warned “Whoever is not with us is against us,” János Kádar – who took power after the revolution was crushed – flipped this to “Whoever is not against us is with us,” in 1961. In the same year, Hungary decriminalised homosexuality for people aged over 20. This was lowered to 18 in 1978 but would only reach parity with Hungary’s age of consent for heterosexuals of 14, in 2002.

Homosexuality was largely taboo during Kádar’s ‘goulash communism’ era. “People felt that they are somehow different, but didn’t have a word for it,” Hungarian journalist and LGBTQ+ activist Ádám András Kanicsár said. “Sometimes they had to dig out an encyclopaedia, where they found the word ‘homosexual’ and finally realised … there are other people like me in the world.”

If Orbán is further marginalised from mainstream European politics that’s a price he’s willing to pay to win the next elections

Under the new law, Hungarian authorities will appoint sex educators in schools, while distributors of children’s books that feature LGBTQ+ characters can be fined. As this could mean anything from Shakespeare’s sonnets to ‘Harry Potter’, the resultant legal uncertainty has forced mainstream booksellers to put up window signs that declare: “This bookstore sells books with content that is outside the norm.”

“We can see the parallels [with the communist era],” Kanicsár said. “Fidesz is trying to take valuable knowledge away from young people.”

According to András Biró Nagy, director of Budapest-based think-tank Policy Solutions, the LGBTQ+ referendum represents a “creatively desperate” Orbán attempting to mobilise his voter base towards family policies, while diverting attention from government failures on COVID response – “his weakest point” – plus poor health care and education, growing societal inequalities, and the highest inflation in the EU.

Aspects of Kádar’s legacy remain. “The majority of Hungarian society is conservative on family issues but further to the left on economic and social issues,” Biró Nagy said. “That is why family policies have been the most popular initiatives of the Orbán era, and from there it is just one step to include some kind of scapegoat.” This time, said Biró Nagy, it is “LGBTQ+ people and liberals who support gay marriage, and if Orbán is further marginalised from mainstream European politics that’s a price he's willing to pay to win the next elections.”

Fidesz’s anti-LGBTQ+ drive began in earnest with the revocation of legal recognition for transgender and intersex people in May 2020, before a string of government sex scandals appeared to stall the campaign.

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Sebastian Vettel's shoes, featuring a Pride flag, at the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix | Independent Photo Agency / Alamy Stock Photo

In July 2020 a Hungarian court found the country’s former ambassador to Peru, Gábor Kaleta, guilty of possession of some 19,000 child porn pictures. He received a one-year suspended prison sentence and a fine. Some details of the case were classified for ten years. Then in November 2020, József Szajer – a Fidesz MEP and party co-founder – was caught trying to flee a gay sex party in Brussels that broke COVID regulations. “We will not forget his 30 years of work, but his actions were not acceptable and cannot be defended,” Orbán said, as Szajer was ejected from the political party he helped found. The following month, Fidesz modified Hungary's ‘Christian Constitution’, which Szajer had authored and which prohibited gay marriage, to also outlaw adoption by gay couples. The child protection law was then introduced to Parliament in February, and the LGBT-related amendments added in mid-June.

This is all a long way from the 1994 election campaign, when Orbán and Hungary’s other party leaders answered questions from Mások (‘Others’), the country’s first LGBT magazine. Asked whether he supported gay marriage, the leader of Hungary’s liberal Free Democrats, Gábor Kuncze, flippantly replied “not with me.” Orbán, at that time Hungary’s other liberal party leader, meanwhile gave a more considered answer, which ended in the affirmative.

“The level of homophobia, even among the (current) opposition parties was very different in the 2000s, even if they did not openly voice it,” said András Lederer, an LGBTQ+ activist and the former leader of the Free Democrats’ youth wing. “In that sense, Fidesz was a different party 15 years ago. I think they would be quite ashamed of the political statements that many of their lawmakers are making today, and also of this bill itself.” Thanks to the efforts of Lederer and others, registered partnership for same-sex couples was legalised, in 2009, the year before Orbán regained power.

Shifting opinion

Yet as Orbán built his self-proclaimed 'illiberal democracy' and the Free Democrats imploded, Hungary’s attitudes to LGBTQ+ issues have shifted in the opposite direction.

“I think the trajectory is still very, very positive,” Lederer said. “One of the main hopes I have in this whole debate is that Fidesz came too late to the party. Years ago, this probably would have seen much weaker resistance from society, but it is no longer 15% of the population that is tolerant towards LGBTQ+ issues – there is actually a majority.

“Fidesz is struggling to connect the LGBTQ+ community with paedophilia, to attempt to tie this to something with which the vast majority absolutely agrees, because in itself it would have been absolutely impossible,” he said.

The ‘child protection’ referendum, to be held in January or February, will ask voters five questions including “Do you support the popularization of sexual gender transformation surgeries for minor age children?” and “Do you support presenting media content showing gender transformation to minor age children?”

Yet by calling this referendum Orbán has also opened up the legal possibility for the six-party opposition alliance to launch its own version.

Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony, a leading hopeful for the opposition alliance's primary run-off in the autumn, said he would like to see his questions “aimed at saving Hungary from Fidesz” added to the ballot, so that ordinary people can give their opinion with a “five no and five yes” vote.

If authorised, the opposition referendum will ask voters about the planned Chinese Fudan University in Budapest; Fidesz’s recent tender that outsources motorway governance for 35 years; Hungary’s failure to join the European Prosecutor’s Office; free COVID antibody tests for pensioners; and improving conditions for job seekers.

“Orbán clearly needs such a proposal because the opposition has their own big issue for the autumn and that is the primary – the referendum is to avoid autumn being about how the opposition is preparing for the elections against him,” Biró Nagy said.

“If the electoral campaign is about the mismanagement of the COVID crisis, Fudan University, the Eastern opening and the Pegasus surveillance scandal, Orban is in a very delicate position,” said Biró Nagy. “If the political agenda is about identity politics and LGBTQ+ rights, then this is Orbán playing at home.”

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