Democracy Under Pressure in Hungary

, by Talisa Mazzoni

Democracy Under Pressure in Hungary
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Elekes Andor, CC BY-SA 4.0 <> , via Wikimedia Commons

This text is written and Published as part of the Democracy Under Pressure Campaign of JEF Europe

2024 marks the 19th year that JEF Europe has continued raising awareness towards the challenges towards European democracy through the campaign “Democracy Under Pressure”. Despite being a shared threat, some countries have regrettably become focal points in the debates surrounding democracy and it’s obstacles. This has been the case in Hungary under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, which has witnessed a steady deterioration in democratic values. In 2022, the European Parliament has agreed, in a resolution backed by 81% of MEPs present to the vote, that Hungary can no longer be considered a full democracy, but rather a “hybrid regime of electoral autocracy”, with a restricted media landscape, a concerning lack of pluralism, and hostile stances towards minorities. Despite being one of the first Eastern countries to decriminalise homosexuality in 1961, particularly prominent are the derogatory remarks against LGBTQIA+ individuals, and the creation of a political climate which promotes negative stigma, discrimination, and violence against LGBTQIA+ people, and therefore discourages democracy.

The establishment of democracy in Hungary follows an uneven path that continues to raise concerns for the future. Following the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989, Hungary adopted a new constitution which formally established the new democratic republic, and officially kick-started its democratic transition, with the desire to implement a new political order that could guarantee a better economy, the protection of human rights, and an improvement of Hungary’s relations with Western countries. Under these conditions, Hungary took two major steps in its journey towards democracy, becoming a member of NATO in 1999, and becoming a member of the European Union in 2004, signalling its commitment to democratic values, human rights, and the rule of law. In this hectic political environment, Orbán began his political career in Fidesz, a liberal youth movement funded in 1988, gaining popularity for his anti-Communist stances and his calls for democratic reforms. A decade after entering the political arena, Orbán ran his first mandate as Prime Minister from 1998 to 2002, with a centre-right government that faced criticism for its clashes with journalists and corruption allegations. After the 2002 elections, Hungary underwent eight years of leadership under the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), during which discrimination based on sexual orientation was prohibited in 2002, and same-sex partnerships were recognized in 2007. Until his return to power in 2010, Orban continued its political activity within Fidesz. During this time, he opted for a more conservative and nationalist leadership, which he applied during his new mandate through several controversial policies undermining human rights and civil society organizations.

Fourteen years into Orbán’s mandate, the freedom and safety of the LGBTQIA+ community are still at risk, and the fear is that it will only get worse. As for 2023, Hungary did not register any progress, and the government has continued implementing and fortifying policies undermining LGBTQIA+ people. An example is the case of the Child Protection Act, issued in 2021 to limit children’s exposure to content considered to be portraying or promoting homosexuality and gender reassignment, raising concerns about the stigmatisation and discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community and the limitation of its freedom of expression. Despite being issued in 2021, the act was the centre of two major episodes in 2023, which fuelled the conversation around the legitimacy of the act. In July 2023, the book distribution company Lira was fined over €30,000 for displaying the bestselling LGBTQIA+ young adult graphic novel “Heartstopper” in the children’s section. According to the act, the novel should have been wrapped in plastic, to prevent its free consultation in the bookshop. Since then, several bookstore chains complied with the act and wrapped in plastic those products that may be considered dangerous by the act, actively performing self-censorship and contributing to the government’s objective - to prevent a fine. However, in 2023, the Hungarian government experienced resistance to its censorship activity against the LGBTQIA+ community. On the occasion of the Budapest Pride parade, held in July 2023, the organization produced an advertisement to promote the event and sent it to RTL, Hungary’s leading media company. After being subjected to the Media Council for preliminary classification, the advertisement was deemed unsuitable to air during daytime due to younger audiences and it was moved to the nighttime graveyard slot. The decision of the Media Council was not welcomed by Budapest Pride, which decided to contest the decision and initiate a juridical challenge to protect the LGBTQIA+’s right to protest and freedom of speech. Nevertheless, the situation remains challenging.

Particularly concerning is the targeting of Transgender individuals. In 2023, the Hungarian government upheld a ruling issued in 2021 which halts new applications for legal gender recognition, limiting access to the legal process to individuals who submitted their request for legal gender recognition before 2021. The renewal of this decision generates concerns among the European community, as it does not hold up against European human rights obligations, and generates a potential threat towards Transgender individuals, who are ultimately exposed to harassment, discrimination, and violence. The Constitutional Court, responsible for issuing the rule, explained that the bill concerns issues linked to criminality and health care, and claimed that someone’s sex assigned at birth is critical to know in health care and legal settings. Such claims do not stand up, and contribute to the hostile environment built around the LGBTQIA+ community. Notwithstanding this, people who were allowed to access legal gender recognition and gain their right to self-identify, face continuous threats and limitations. In July 2023, Fidesz proposed a bill which would exclude Transgender women from the pension scheme which benefits women who have worked 40 years but have not yet reached retirement age, in a new blatant bill which discriminates against Transgender women and does not validate their existence, with concerning stances that, once again, put at risk Transgender individuals and categorize LGBTQIA+ individual as B class citizens.

While this is a somewhat limited assessment of democracy in Hungary, it still shows how the situation is quickly deteriorating. The Hungarian government has continued proposing and renewing bills which limit the freedom of the LGBTQIA+ community and undermine their safety in the country, while also enforcing media censorship. The hostility generated by Orban’s government represents not only a threat to Hungary but also an intimidating remark on the spread of far-right ideals, and anti-LGBQTIA+ movements, which may affect other European countries and become a shared threat to democracy among the European Union. In this sense, it remains crucial for the EU to continue doing what it can to challenge the Hungarian government’s anti-democratic policies. In the end, a threat against one is a threat against all, and we must do all that we can to ensure the consolidation and survival of Democracy in Europe, and beyond.

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