Anti-immigrant sentiment and overt islamophobia helped Viktor Orbán win his third consecutive term in 2018. He might find it difficult to replicate his success by replaying the same tunes with homophobia.
The Hungarian government passed a homophobic bill earlier in the summer. The bill which was originally intended to be a much-needed update to the justice system’s inability to properly address paedophilia was amended last minute by Fidesz MP Máté Kocsis to include a passage banning the “promotion or display” of homosexuality to anyone below the age of 18.
The amended bill provoked a huge domestic and international backlash. Four out of five parliamentary parties from the United Opposition boycotted the vote, while Jobbik pledged to remove the controversial passage from the bill if they are in government. Accounts of the most tense European Council meeting in the institution’s history were also circulated in the press.
According to reports, barely anyone took Orbán’s side and Mark Rutte, the prime minister of The Netherlands even suggested that Hungary should leave the European Union.
Recently, Viktor Orbán announced the government would initiate a referendum with five questions relating to the bill, similar to the so-called “Migrant Quota” referendum of 2016. These developments confirm what recent whispers from Kossuth Square already suggested; Orbán is planning to place his anti-LGBT crusade at the forefront of his campaign to be reelected in 2022.
Though the strength of Fidesz’s propaganda machine should not be underestimated, there are several reasons why this approach may not be as fruitful as weaponising anti-immigrant sentiments and islamophobia was in 2018.
Lack of public support
The first and perhaps most important reason why weaponising homophobia might backfire is that unlike in 2015-2018’s anti-immigrant campaigns, Viktor Orbán and Fidesz might well be expressing an opinion that is in the minority within Hungarian society. The support for LGBT causes in Hungary is relatively high and contrary to the attitudes of the political establishment, it has actually improved in the past decade.
According to a survey by Ipsos, support for gay marriage in Hungary increased from 30% in 2013 to 46% this year. More striking is support for same-sex adoption which is at 59% in Hungary. 62% of the Hungarian population agree that same-sex couples are able to raise a child just as well as straight couples.
Another recent poll by Závecz Research came to similar conclusions: 56% of the population are accepting of homosexuality and crucially even 20% of Fidesz voters stated that they were “strongly accepting” of homosexuality.
The reason for this attitude could be the individualist nature of Hungarian society. The anti-immigrant campaign appealed to individualised fears: immigrants were said to threaten the individual’s job or threaten the individual’s way of life.
In Orbán’s anti-LGBT campaign, on the other hand, the focus is more on abstract societal norms and values, which do not threaten the individual. Hungarian society in general is a much more xenophobic society than it is a homophobic one, which Fidesz’s communication team might have failed to consider.
Another problem Fidesz faces is that a large section of the Hungarian population will inevitably know LGBT individuals, and therefore it will be much harder to demonise them than it was the case with immigrants during the migrant crisis when they could easily be portrayed as an unknown distant threat.
This takes us to the second point, which is that the anti-LGBT message is a significantly more complicated one to communicate. Back in 2015, the message was clearly that jobs and “the Hungarian way of life” were in danger. However, Fidesz’s recent messages regarding LGBT issues are often convoluted, and it seems that sometimes even the party’s own propaganda machine is unsure what their exact messaging is.
The official line states that according to the government, every adult can do what they want at home, but that it should be kept private. This position would make sense if homosexuality had been a topic discussed originally in mainstream politics before Fidesz decided to put it on the agenda: the migrant crisis was an organic and real event that actually occurred and voters and parties across the political spectrum expressed an opinion regarding the matter.
Fidesz just jumped on the bandwagon and managed to communicate its message more effectively than its opposition. However, in the instance of LGBT matters, it is only Fidesz that brought up the issue in the first place, and the public was not exposed to it beforehand.
And while the homophobic bill’s intent was clear in Fidesz wanting to interpret homosexuality as being the same as paedophilia, since then the messaging revolves explicitly around transgender issues and sex education in schools, and the idea that people want to “popularise” sex change for children which, though sounds ominous, does not imply sexual abuse and thus the link with even the perceived paedophilia is relatively weak.
While the anti-immigrant message was a simple one to communicate, the current messaging, which states that people are popularising sex changes in schools is significantly more difficult to sell given that it is impossible to be reduced to buzzwords. Fidesz will likely struggle to explain it in remote rural areas where people probably haven’t really heard much about transgender issues in the first place.
Another factor that could seriously hinder Fidesz in their homophobic campaign is a lack of authenticity. The party tends to position itself as a christian democratic party and the last bastion of christian values in Europe. As a such it derives its anti-LGBT position from a moral standpoint.
However, in recent years Fidesz was marred by a number of sex scandals, notably in 2019 when footage emerged of Fidesz politician and Győr’s mayor, László Borkai participating in a drug-induced orgy near the coasts of Croatia.
More importantly, an even more serious scandal broke out last year, when József Szájer, Fidesz’s Brussels strongman and the co-author of the new constitution several homophobic laws are based on, was arrested in Brussels for breaking Covid rules by participating in an exclusively male orgy.
The Szájer scandal already damaged Fidesz’s credibility on the issue, and in case similar evidence arises about yet another party figure (no pun intended), that could significantly hinder Fidesz’s ability to talk about this issue and be taken seriously.
The economic context is also completely different to the last election. Whereas in 2018, the campaign took place in the middle of an economic boom and the only thing voters could be realistically anxious about was losing what they already had, 2022 will be dominated by the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and people will have legitimate economic concerns they will want solutions to from politicians.
Simply demonising a group might not be enough this time for Fidesz to win the election, especially since the government was regularly criticised for the lack of economic support given to businesses during the pandemic and more importantly because the said demographic group does not threaten anyone economically.
Lack of international support
Finally, with the homophobic law, Viktor Orbán has considerably fewer international supporters than with his anti-immigrant rhetorics. There was indeed a significant section of the European mainstream right that expressed the same arguments as Viktor Orbán did about the migrant crisis (albeit in a more moderate tone) and Donald Trump’s White House was more or less on the same position regarding immigration to the United States. But in 2021, it is difficult to find any mainstream right-wing party in the West (apart from Poland) that does not at least minimally embrace homosexuality.
This reflects a wider trend in Viktor Orbán’s international alienation: with the defeat of Donald Trump in 2020 and Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this year, the Hungarian prime minister seems to be running out of breathing room on the international stage.
Viktor Orbán successfully mobilised voters a number of times by building his campaign on toxic and prejudiced rhetorics, therefore it is no surprise that both the international and domestic media assume that he will succeed by doing so once again. However, just because someone starts a culture war, it does not mean they will automatically win it.
The circumstances are different this time than they were four years ago and polling suggests Orbán might not have chosen an ideal central topic for his crucial reelection campaign. Their new inability to read the public mood might suggest that Fidesz’s illiberal project is finally running out of steam.
By Ábel Bede
Ábel Bede was born in Budapest and has two degrees in History from Durham University. He specialised in Central Europan history and has been contributing to Kafkadesk since 2019. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here!