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People take part in the annual Pride festival in Budapest, Hungary ;

Human Rights Under Quarantine: “Viktatorship” in Hungary

Feminist Perspectives
Selen Eşençay

International Relations MA student, Bilkent University

16 December 2020

Hungary’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic indicated a serious shift towards authoritarianism directly impacting Hungary’s structure of economic and social life. Considering the decline in the Hungarian economy as a result of COVID-19 and the unpreparedness of its healthcare system, it was unsurprising that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán would attempt to shift public attention away from the health crisis.

The pandemic has revealed and worsened entrenched inequalities within Hungarian society. Moreover, the refusal to ratify the Istanbul Convention in May 2020 exposed women to increased risks during the COVID-19 crisis. LGBTQ+ rights were again the focus of Orbán’s populist strategies to divert the public's attention from the controversial management of the crisis. In this piece, I will approach the impact of the Hungarian response to the COVID-19 pandemic on LGBTQ+ rights demonstrating that democratic backsliding, already the main issue of EU criticism of Hungary, were enhanced during the crisis.

It has been almost a year since governments declared war against COVID-19. Although the recent pandemic has put public health in danger, it poses another threat since extraordinary powers are a source of enormous temptation for politicians, particularly, illiberal populist leaders such as the one in Hungary. Hungary has had one of the most controversial responses to COVID-19 due to the increase in democratic backsliding. Worldwide, precautions taken against the pandemic have been unprecedented, and these extraordinary measures have been utilized by some countries to maintain processes of hollowing out democracy. As people were already frightened by the news presented to them by their governments , they became more willing to adopt extraordinary measures and confer their precious liberties and rights to their leaders who claimed to be their protectors. The risk here is that the measures that were introduced as temporary can remain in place longer than they were supposed to.

Orbán’s government began to portray LGBTQ+ Hungarians as a ‘threat’ to Hungary to consolidate his power. After the outbreak of the pandemic, it is logical to expect that Orbán would try to shift public attention away from the decline in the Hungarian economy and unpreparedness in the healthcare system. The current pandemic exemplifies the enhancement of authoritarian tendencies that have emerged in Hungary. Orbán has been labelled a “Viktator'' due to his authoritarianism, all the while reminding his enemies and allies that he was elected democratically. Orbán has built an effective monopoly in a nominally competitive environment. Thanks to an electoral system that secures majoritarianism and suffers from electoral fraud, Orbán has achieved a two-thirds majority in parliament which has allowed him to gain the legal power to alter the constitution at will. The inadequate representation of the opposition in the parliament stops it from acting as a check on the executive.

Viktor Orbán Hungarian Prime Minister
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán wears a protective face mask during a press conference

Orbán has been the focus of international criticism during the COVID-19 pandemic for seizing legislation that authorizes him to rule by decree without any time limit. Parliament, rather than concentrating on the coronavirus, focused on implementing legislation limiting the rights of the trans community. A bill, submitted on 31st March, under the guise of fighting COVID-19 included the adoption of a controversial set of measures and stipulates the definition of gender as “biological sex regarding primary sex characteristics and chromosomes”. Hence, this regulation almost makes it impossible to alter anyone’s legally recognised gender. The bill, which also includes gender regulation, consists of several issues. It indicates that even as Orbán sought to implement measures for fighting COVID-19, his government had not forgotten other battlefields.

Furthermore, the Hungarian government removed Gender Studies graduate degrees from the list of approved subjects on 12th October 2018. These changes are assaults on an academia representing an instance of authoritarian governments targeting academic and LGBTQ+ institutions. Trans rights and so-called “gender ideology” are the focus of conservative politicians, and Orbán’s government already implemented measures that banned Gender Studies departments in 2018. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of authoritarian regimes around the world that limit academic freedom. Moreover, trans people in Hungary have had difficulties regarding altering their documents legally since 2018. The proposed bill enshrines this ban on legal gender alterations in law.


People take part in the annual Pride festival in Budapest, Hungary
People take part in the annual Pride festival in Budapest, Hungary on July 6

The commissioner of the Council of Europe for human rights criticized the bill by saying that the Hungarian government has taken advantage of the pandemic in order to hide their intentions. Those criticisms state that the law, which was supposed to deal with the pandemic, will multiply discrimination in society towards trans people and some trans people will consequently leave Hungary. However, those who cannot afford to leave will stay and face daily humiliations. Furthermore, Bernadett Szél, an independent MP, criticized the timing of the bill by arguing that healthcare issues and financial support for citizens should be the two main focuses during the pandemic. Tamás Dombos, a board member of the Háttér Society, states that the procedure for legally changing gender in Hungary used to be fairly straightforward, yet, for the past three years, the authorities have become reluctant to apply the law. Even without this law, life was already difficult in Hungary for the transgender community. Right now, the adoption of this bill and its timing shows that the government ignores the LGBTQ+ community to preserve their real intentions. Moreover, on 16 November 2020, Hungary and Poland blocked Europe’s 1.72 trillion Euro budget and coronavirus recovery package to face Covid-19’s economic consequences because it was conditional on respecting the rule of law.

Democracy must be acknowledged in checks and balances on legitimate executive action. The basic principle of fundamental rights aims to halt misuse of power and violation of human rights. The extraordinary measures taken against the pandemic and the previous democratic backsliding confirm that Hungary is becoming an accomplished illiberal democracy where LGBTQ+ and women’s rights are directly targeted.

About the author

Selen Eşençay is an International Relations MA student at Bilkent University. She graduated with a BA High Honours in Political Science and is now an Assistant Researcher at the Department of International Relations, specialising in Central and Eastern Europe. She also works as an Associate Researcher at TACTICS Institute for Security. She has published extensively on the securitization of women rights at LSE and was an exchange student at Collegium Civitas, Warsaw. She speaks Turkish, English and French. She tweets @sesencayy


Feminist Perspectives

Feminist Perspectives is a blog created to publish research-based work – like academic research and think pieces – and art-based projects that use gender as a category of analysis or explore…

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