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30 June 2021updated 06 Sep 2021 1:46pm

As its democracy deteriorates further, never forget that Hungary and Viktor Orbán are not the same

It's unfair for the world to blame the nation's football players for the homophobic actions of their government.  

By Jeremy Cliffe

Viktor Orbán needed a new bogeyman. His popularity has suffered from his catastrophic handling of the Covid-19 pandemic (Hungary has the highest per-capita death toll in Europe) and a general election is looming in spring 2022. Xenophobic attacks on migrants and openly anti-Semitic innuendo about the investor George Soros have provided the Hungarian prime minister with his culture war ammunition in recent years, an “other” against which to foment hatred and fear. Now he has turned his fire on the LGBT community.

On 15 June, MPs for his Fidesz party voted in a new law that, alongside new sanctions on child sexual abuse, banned “promoting or portraying” homosexuality or sex reassignment to minors (including as part of sex education in schools) and placed restrictions on LGBT portrayals in the media. The law is the latest in a series of homophobic measures introduced by Orbán’s corruption riddled government and the latest step in the dismantlement of liberal democracy in Hungary.

The international outrage found its way on to the football pitch on 23 June when Hungary played Germany in the European Championship. Though Uefa blocked a plan to light up Munich’s stadium in rainbow colours, spectators at the game waved rainbow banners. One ran on to the pitch with the LGBT flag and held it up at the Hungarian team during the playing of the country’s national anthem. It all made for a spirited and inspiring rejection of Orbán’s hate-mongering.

Yet watching the pitch invasion, and some of the media coverage, I could not but feel uneasy at the way this all seemed to be targeted at the Hungarian team. The players are representatives of their country, yes. But this risks equating Orbán with Hungary in a way that only helps him.

[See also: How Hungary’s elite made a fortune from the EU]

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Many Hungarians are as horrified by the new law as the Germans who protested at the match. Thousands demonstrated in Budapest on the eve of the vote. Péter Gulácsi, the Hungarian goalkeeper, has spoken out against Orbán’s homophobic policies: “Love, acceptance and tolerance for others is the most important,” he wrote on his Facebook page of a ban on adoption by LGBT couples. The anti-Orbán opposition coalition is polling neck-and-neck with Fidesz; one poll taken between 8 and 16 June put it ahead by 50 per cent to 47 per cent. It is entirely possible that Gergely Karácsony, the progressive mayor of Budapest, will be prime minister by this time next year.

What can the rest of Europe do to help him? Ask Hungarian opposition activists and politicians, and they tend to ask primarily for enduring faith in a better Hungary rather than merely affirmations of the prime minister’s ghastliness. That militates for a clear distinction between, say, its football squad and its government policies. “We cheered our wonderful team,” tweeted the liberal Hungarian MEP Katalin Cseh after the Munich match. “They fought their hearts out, kept going till the end [and] made us all so proud. And remember – there’s more to Hungary than Viktor Orbán.”

At the European Council summit the following day, other leaders rightly excoriated Orbán over the law. A statement opposing it was signed by 17 EU governments. Yet not all made the distinction between leader and country. Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, told journalists: “The goal is to force Hungary to its knees regarding this issue,” and added that Hungary needed to realise that being in the EU meant being part of a “community of values”.

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[See also: The meaning of the resignation of Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven]

Such imprecision, particularly coming from western Europeans, risks appearing to write off the whole country and its relatively young post-1989 democracy as hopelessly backward and bigoted (what the historian Timothy Garton Ash has aptly described to me as “intra-European orientalism”). That gives Orbán far too much credit and plays directly into his narrative of grievance and self-pity. Sure enough, the prime minister posted an out-of-context clip of Rutte’s comment – “The goal is to force Hungary to its knees” – on his Facebook page under the headline: “Show more respect to Hungarians!” With friends like these, Hungary’s opposition hardly needs enemies.

What makes sweeping language and gestures troublesome is that they are often a substitute for, rather than a prelude or stimulant to, serious action, notes Cas Mudde, a leading academic commentator on the far right: “Several of the 17 member states [who criticised Orbán] do not legally recognise gay marriages (eg, Cyprus, Italy) or some form of civil union (eg, Latvia).” In domestic Dutch politics, Mudde adds, Rutte has variously worked with and helped normalise politicians opposed to some LGBT rights.

And then there is Germany itself, where a whiff of hypocrisy could be detected in some of the happily pro-LGBT overtures. How valuable, for example, were the rainbow-flag pieties by German firms when some of those same firms, through their huge investments in Hungary, provide the Orbán regime’s economic backbone? How much good is it for Angela Merkel to condemn the law when she also drags her feet on action, such as tying EU funds to rule-of-law standards, that would really make Orbán pay a serious price? “There are myriad ways to take action against Orbán,” despairs Cseh, “what’s been missing is political will, especially on the side of German conservatives.”

The best way for the rest of Europe to help Hungarians cast off Orbán and Orbánism is to avoid patronisingly holding the whole country to his dismal standards. That means zero tolerance of his crooked, nasty government and its many abuses. And it means showing confidence that the better angels of Hungary’s nature can prevail. 

[See also: How Slovakia halted its democratic descent]