Could Hungary's election bring change on LGBTQ+ rights?

by Joanna Gill | @JoGillJourno | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 1 April 2022 15:45 GMT

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during a rally, as Hungary's National Day celebrations, which also commemorate the 1848 Hungarian Revolution against the Habsburg monarchy take place in Budapest, Hungary, March 15, 2022. The sign reads "Peace and safety". REUTERS/Marton Monus

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Gay and transgender rights are in the spotlight as Hungarians vote on Sunday following a series of rollbacks under Prime Minister Victor Orban's Fidesz party

By Joanna Gill

With LGBTQ+ rights in the spotlight, Hungarians go to the polls on Sunday for a closely contested parliamentary election and a parallel referendum on a law that limits schools' teaching about homosexuality and transgender issues.

Prime Minister Victor Orban's right-wing Fidesz party faces a united opposition for the first time since he came to power in a 2010 election landslide, and polls suggest his opponents are within striking distance of unseating his party.

LGBTQ+ groups are hoping for a change of government after repeated rollbacks on the rights of gay and trans people under Fidesz.

Here are some details about Sunday's voting:

What is Orban's stance on LGBTQ+ rights?

Orban's government has passed numerous laws restricting LGBTQ+ rights in recent years, with a strong parliamentary majority allowing it to push through contentious bills with relative ease.

In May 2020, parliament voted to bar trans people from legally changing their sex on their identity documents.

Months later, Hungary changed the definition of family in its constitution to effectively prevent same-sex couples from adopting children.

Last June, the government prompted an outcry from rights groups after it passed legislation that bans the dissemination of content deemed to promote "homosexuality or gender change" to under-18s or in schools - ostensibly as a measure to prevent child abuse.

Despite such legislative measures, Orban has said he is a defender of LGBTQ+ rights, and had been a "freedom fighter" against the communist regime that ruled the country until 1989 and opposed gay rights.

But, in recent years, he has increasingly cast himself as a defender of "traditional Hungarian values" as he looks to drum up conservative support. 

"Orban has for years been looking for issues that can be divisive enough that they can use it to be a vote winner," said Andras Toth-Czifra, political analyst at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a think-tank in Washington, D.C.. 

What is the opposition's stance on LGBTQ+ rights?

Six opposition parties have banded together to form the group United for Hungary in an effort to overturn Fidesz's two-thirds majority in parliament and form a government.

Polls suggest the election will be a tight race, with Fidesz maintaining a narrow lead over United for Hungary. 

The alliance brings together liberals, greens, conservatives as well as radical nationalist party Jobbik. Its candidate for prime minister is Peter Marki-Zay, a conservative mayor who is independent of any party.

United for Hungary's manifesto says no one should suffer harm or discrimination due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, and Marki-Zay has said the alliance would legalise same-sex marriage if elected.

While emphasising that he is a Roman Catholic, he has said Hungary should not discriminate and should offer its citizens equal rights.

Hungary has never allowed gay marriage but recognises same-sex civil unions.

United for Hungary would also take immediate steps to scrap the law banning the dissemination of gay and trans "propaganda" among children, Marki-Zay has been quoted as saying.

What is the 'anti-LGBTQ+' referendum about?

Hungarians will also vote in a referendum on whether they support the LGBTQ+ content law, which set Orban on a collision course with the EU's executive Commission, which has launched legal action against it and threatened to withold funding.

The referendum, which was called by Orban, is widely seen as a riposte to the European Union.

The law has yet to be enforced, but translator and teacher Viktoria Sulyok said its effects were being felt by herself and fellow volunteers for the "Getting to know LGBT People" programme, which used to visit about 35 schools every year.

This year, they have visited just two - both of them private schools, she said from Budapest. 

"School teachers and directors are afraid of inviting us, and of course it's completely understandable. They're afraid of losing their jobs," she added.

Human rights campaigners have called on voters to spoil their ballots, in an effort to ensure the referendum fails to reach the 50% voter participation required to be deemed valid.

A spokesperson for the Hungarian government said the new law was designed to protect children.

"Schools can't say they'll expose our children to presentations and propaganda which our children aren't prepared for," the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.         

What's likely to be the upshot of the election?

Another win for Orban's party could lead to further restrictions on the rights and freedoms of LGBTQ+ people in Hungary, or a more conservative shift on other social issues, analysts and activists said.

"Abortion could be next. And we are really worried about this, said Floris Balta, a natural science teacher in Budapest who is transgender.

Rights groups hope that a victory for the opposition could offer a change in direction - though there are questions over how far the alliance would go to support LGBTQ+ rights, and whether the fragile coalition will hold together.

"Even if the opposition wins, there's a lot of work to do," said Katrin Hugendubel, advocacy director at ILGA Europe, which lobbies for LGBTQ+ rights.

"But there is a window of opportunity for political advocacy on actually correcting the path to a better protection of LGBTI rights."

Related stories:

Hungarians speak out on anti-LGBT+ law as EU pushes for its repeal 

Shakespeare, Sappho risk ban under Hungary's anti-LGBT+ law 

LGBTQ+ rights 'going backwards' around world, warns UK envoy

(Reporting by Joanna Gill in Brussels; Additional reporting by Enrique Anarte in Berlin; Editing by Sonia Elks. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)