Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán has passed a series of measures effectively curtailing the civil liberties of the country’s LGBTQ+ citizens. A well-established populist, Orbán seeks to reshape the state into one that upholds Christian values with the help of his far-right Fidesz party. Yet Orbán has largely misused religion to promote anti-LGBTQ+ policies, as well as to consolidate power. These actions have unquestionably eroded the country’s democratic standing.
When reviewing Hungary’s latest legislation against the LGBTQ+ community, it’s important to keep in mind the four warning signs of an eroding democracy proposed by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their book “How Democracies Die.” The warning signs are as follows: 1) rejection of the democratic rules of the game, 2) denial of the legitimacy of opponents, 3) toleration or encouragement of violence, and 4) a willingness to deny opponents of their civil liberties. Though Orbán and his party claim to serve the “will of the nation,” each of these criteria have been used by the far-right government — in one way or another — to exclude LGBTQ+ citizens.
However, it is important to keep in mind that Hungary is a part of the European Union (EU), and as a member, must conform to its democratic ideals. Orbán and his party have often operated in a very procedurally correct manner in order to keep their EU status — and funding.
Last December, Hungary’s parliament passed a law that bars same-sex couples from adopting children, citing the importance of traditional, Christian institutions of marriage and family. The law redefines “family” as being composed of a man as the father and a woman as the mother.
Prior to the legislature’s decision, same-sex couples could technically adopt children. The caveat being that one partner would have to apply as a single person. Same-sex couples could adopt, but only in a way that demeaned and invalidated their existence. The new law makes it difficult for any single person to adopt children whether they are queer or not. Though civil unions are still permitted, the crackdown on the LGBTQ+ community doesn’t end at adoption.
This past January, Hungary’s government ordered a publisher to print disclaimers on books containing “behavior inconsistent with traditional gender roles.” The book, published by Labrisz an association for lesbian, bisexual, and trans women, is a fairytale anthology titled “Wonderland Is For Everyone.” The message behind the book is to be respectful of people from all backgrounds. The far-right Fidesz party has called the book “homosexual propaganda.”
Social divides in Hungary are mainly of a religious vs. secular and nationalist vs. cosmopolitan composition. The latter emerged as an electoral mobilization tool following the country’s departure from communism, as noted by Jennifer McCoy, Tahmina Rahman, and Murat Somer in their article “Polarization of the Global Crisis of Democracy.”
Though given Orbán’s uncharacteristic shift to the right in 2008, one could argue the religious-secular divide was a mobilization tool of its own. Yes, Orbán was an atheist when he began his career in politics in the 1980s. All things considered, both social divides have facilitated opportunities for him to engage the far-right and “other” his opponents.
Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it relatively easy for Orbán to seize additional power. A state of emergency law was adopted following shortly after the pandemic’s start in March 2020, granting Orbán the ability to rule by decree. While parliament voted to end the state of emergency over the summer, Orbán managed to push through several measures unrelated to the pandemic during that time. Several of those measures allowed him to greatly expand his power. Exploiting crises is a common tactic in the authoritarian’s arsenal, as evidenced by the current pandemic.
Not soon after the pandemic began, legislation was passed by the Fidesz-dominated parliament tying an individual’s gender to the person’s sex and chromosomes at birth. In Hungarian, the word “nem” means both sex and gender. There are not separate words in the language for the two distinct terms. The legislature voted to replace “nem” with “sex at birth” on birth, marriage, and death certificates. In other words, Hungarians cannot change their names or their genders in official documents. This could expose transgender individuals to harassment if the gender on their documents does not match their appearance.
Critics cite contradictions from the European Court of Human Rights and Hungary’s Constitutional Court. Although Hungary’s Constitutional Court pledged to review this ruling, the string of attacks on LGBTQ+ rights doesn’t make such a review very promising. Plus, homophobia and discrimination are on the rise in Hungary. Orbán, while not explicitly inciting violence against the queer community, certainly doesn’t attempt to stop it.
Eroding judicial independence is also a concern in Hungary, furthering reasons not to believe that the Court will overturn its ruling. Zsolt András Varga was appointed president of the Supreme Court in October of 2020 despite overwhelming opposition by the National Judicial Council. A lack of experience and several decisions favorable to the government were cited as reasons for not wanting Varga as president.
Orbán has placed stringent controls not only over the country’s judicial branch, but also over most of its media outlets and universities. In 2018, the government placed a ban on gender studies programs at all Hungarian universities. Zsolt Semjen, leader of Hungary’s Christian Democratic Party and ally of Orbán, called the discipline “an ideology, not a science.”
With the help of the Fidesz party and other allies, Orbán has stacked the system in his favor and cemented his control over not only each of the branches of government, but also several institutions central to a functioning democracy. These actions have altogether moved Hungary away from a liberal democracy towards a semi-authoritarian regime, or “hybrid” regime. In fact, Freedom House reclassified the country as “partly free” just this past year.
Levitsky and Ziblatt’s four warning signs help to understand how the country has become so antidemocratic. Discerning erosion in the modern age is a difficult matter. As Nancy Bermeo notes in her article “On Democratic Backsliding,” blatant forms of backsliding (such as coups) are no longer the norm. Today, it is subtle procedural changes that undermine a country’s democratic standing.
While the fourth warning sign — a willingness to deny opponents of their civil liberties — has clearly been violated, and to a lesser extent the third, the others are hard to prove. The biggest challenge in declaring Hungary’s democratic backsliding is in how Orbán and the Fidesz party have operated in a procedurally correct way. Saying outright that the far-rightists have not played by the rules of the game or that they’ve denied the legitimacy of their opponents wouldn’t be true in a technical sense. Be that as it may, Orbán and his party have unquestionably bent the rules of the game in their favor, narrowing the path for their opponents to succeed.
Appointing Varga as president of the Supreme Court despite strong disapproval, for instance, wasn’t necessarily illegal but clearly gave reinforcement to Orbán’s position of power — and conversely, took power away from opponents. Today the idea of reversing the country’s outlaw on gender changes in official documents seems far from plausible.
A larger question now looms overhead as to whether democracy will remain in retreat or if the EU will step in and take control. How will the democratic organization that is the EU respond to one of its member state’s backsliding? Its use of “gentle diplomacy” has so far failed.
The LGBTQ+ citizens of Hungary know all too well that their rights are slipping away. Orbán and his party’s misuse of religion served to both consolidate power and deny the existence of the community. Much of the new legislation is pushed through under the justification that it is the “will of the nation,” but the LGBTQ+ community stands as a case in point that Orbán and the Fidesz party’s antidemocratic values are certainly not the will of the nation.