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In his victory speech following a third successive election triumph in 2018, Viktor Orbán told jubilant supporters that the result gave voters “the opportunity to defend themselves and to defend Hungary”. For over a decade now, Hungary’s prime minister has skilfully galvanised his political base by cultivating a siege mentality. Three years ago, Muslim migrants were depicted as the enemies at the gates, whose entry would undermine Christian values and traditions. Other targets of choice have included George Soros, NGOs and, the Guardian’s recent Pegasus revelations appear to suggest, critical journalists placed under digital surveillance.
A new election requires a new threat. As Hungary emerges from the pandemic, Mr Orbán and his Fidesz party have entered campaigning mode ahead of a spring poll that is expected to be extremely close. Their baleful gaze has alighted on Hungary’s LGBT+ population and its potential to lead the young astray. Last month, MPs passed a law that prohibits depicting or promoting LGBT+ content to under-18s in Hungary’s schools and the media. The new legislation will heavily restrict the portrayal of LGBT+ people in the arts and entertainment, and elsewhere. Critics have compared it to Russia’s 2013 law against “gay propaganda”, which was duly followed by a disturbing increase in violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Unsurprisingly, this attempt by a member state of the European Union to reverse decades of progress in LGBT+ rights has provoked a backlash. At a summit last month, the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, questioned Hungary’s continuing presence in the EU, while Luxembourg’s leader, Xavier Bettel, who is gay, reportedly told the meeting: “I did not become gay because of something I saw on TV.” The European Commission has initiated legal action over the new legislation. This has now become entwined with a row over the delayed disbursement of the first tranche of Hungary’s share of the EU post-pandemic recovery fund. Brussels has yet to sign off the package, citing concerns over clientelism and corruption in Mr Orbán’s government.
Mr Orbán will naturally hope that the more isolated he becomes, the more effectively he can pose as the heroic defender of an unfairly treated nation. Last week, it was announced that there will be a national referendum on the issues raised by the LGBT+ law, containing a set of laughably leading questions. In a Facebook video message, Mr Orbán told viewers: “When the pressure on our country is this strong, only the people’s shared will can protect us.” This is another favourite move from the prime minister’s playbook. In 2016, Mr Orbán handsomely won a referendum on mandatory EU migrant quotas, albeit on a very low turnout.
Will it all work a fourth time round? Unlike in 2018, Mr Orbán is set to face a united front in the spring, in a race that currently looks as if it will be very close. Six opposition parties, some with little in common other than a desire to see the back of this regime, will choose a single prime ministerial candidate in the autumn. It may well be Budapest’s mayor, Gergely Karácsony, who at the weekend addressed record crowds at the city’s Pride parade. The slogan for this year’s event, defiantly ebullient in the face of the new law, was “Claim back your future!” Against an opponent as cynical and well-versed in the politics of division as Hungary’s prime minister, that will not be easy.