Hungary has passed a new law that critics say conflates pedophilia with LGBTQ+ issues. Is the government trying to deflect attention from its failures and divide the opposition?
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is not a die-hard homophobe. Nevertheless, he makes overtly homophobic remarks now and then, for reasons of political expediency. In an interview last fall, Orban drew a parallel between homosexuality and pedophilia: “Hungary is a tolerant, patient country with regard to homosexuality,” he said. “But there is a red line that must not be crossed: Leave our children alone!”
That red line is the basis of a new law proposed by Orban’s governing majority and passed by the Hungarian parliament on Tuesday. The bill led to an outcry in Hungary in recent days, with civil organizations, including Amnesty International, protesting against the majority’s move, and a petition signed by more than 100,000 people opposing the legislation. On Monday, about 10,000 people demonstrated on Budapest’s Kossuth Square in front of the parliament. Most opposition parties boycotted the vote — only Jobbik, a party that is part of the united opposition and that was once far-right but is now moderately right-wing conservative, voted in favor of the bill along with Orban’s ruling Fidesz party.
The draft legislation presented in May originally only stipulated tougher penalties for pedophilia, in the wake of several cases of child abuse among Fidesz supporters, which were unsuccessfuly covered up. The former Hungarian ambassador to Peru, Gabor Kaleta, was sentenced to a suspended prison sentence last year on child pornography charges — about 19,000 photos were found on his devices — a fact that was long kept under wraps.
Orban could have pushed the anti-pedophilia bill to dispel suspicions that his party is not taking a strong enough stand against child abuse. Fidesz lawmakers only introduced the passages on protecting children from homosexuality last week.
According to the vague wording, promoting homosexuality and gender change surgery to minors will be forbidden in Hungary, and only organizations handpicked by the government will be allowed to give talks on such topics in schools. Advertisements that present homosexuality or gender change operations “as an end in themselves” are also to be banned for minors.
The law does not provide precise definitions, however — so even the display of rainbow flags in public could be punishable. The law could have an impact on media content in the broadest sense, as Hungary’s largest private television station, RTL Klub, pointed out in a statement. Films and series dealing with modern family life could be banned, too, according to RTL Klub.
The Hungarian government did not respond to DW’s questions concerning the new law, except to offer a written statement almost identical to the text explaining the bill. Andras Bozoki, a Hungarian political scientist at the Central European University (CEU) in Vienna told DW that the law clearly violates EU values and would probably ultimately be declared illegal by a European court.
The law is modeled on similar legislation in Russia and Poland, Bozoki said. Russia passed a law against what it called gay propaganda in 2013, and in Poland, President Andrzej Duda ran a strongly homophobic re-election campaign last year. In Hungary, homophobia has not played a prominent role for a long time — but that has changed: Last year, the official change of birth sex was banned by law and the constitution was amended to add: “The mother is a woman, the father is a man.” As a result, same-sex couples no longer have adoption rights in Hungary.
Orban is using the new law to distract from various recent problems, Bozoki said. “You can’t mobilize masses with fear of migration anymore, because hardly any refugees come to Hungary,” he said. “That’s why Orban now resorts to an identity issue like radical homophobia, which deliberately blurs the lines between public and private issues and sets an agenda of social polarization.”
In fact, things have not been going well for the prime minister for some time. The Hungarian public is increasingly fed up with corruption scandals surrounding the head of government as well as with his pandemic mismanagement. Orban is increasingly on the defensive, which was evident when his government backtracked on an extremely unpopular Hungarian-Chinese university project.
The law is about dividing the opposition, Bozoki said. Jobbik’s vote presented the united opposition with its first major test: Hungary’s six largest opposition parties had decided at the end of last year to run in the elections next spring with a joint list and a joint basic program — their only chance against Fidesz given the current mood in Hungary. Now Orban has once again succeeded in dividing his opponents, Bozoki said. That is “bad news for the opposition,” he added.