How anti-gender fearmongering challenges democracy in Hungary 

Anti-Gender (AG) campaigns – such as those targeting gender and sexual minorities and/or women’s rights – have become key components of conservative / right wing politics in the past decade in many countries. Hungary is an extreme example, where AG rhetoric has been instrumentalised by the government led by the Fidesz-KDNP Party Alliance who gained power in 2010 and have since been able to keep their position. As part of their rhetoric, gender is understood as an ideology – an ideology of the left / “liberals” – that propagates Western immorality as opposed to Hungarian, national, Christian values. But why does fearmongering, and in particular, AG fearmongering work so well as a political instrument? I suggest that there are some general answers to this question and there are those that are more specific in terms of time (present democratic challenges) and space (Hungary). 

A more general answer is linked to fearmongering. Fearmongering as a political instrument has a long history. The idea of an external threat strengthens ingroup identity (e.g., creating an imagined sense of national community as Nira Yuval-Davis put it) and strengthens commitment to the assumed values of the group. For political leaders, the externalisation of fears/problems provides the opportunity to mascarade as protectors of the community (and its’ values) as well as allowing them to have control over the emotions of its people. And emotions are a powerful element of political decision-making. In other words, if fear is focused on the dismantling of traditional gender roles/identities, then who cares about austerity measures?

Deconstruction of “traditional” gender and sexual roles/values have always been surrounded by moral panic; from the witch hunts of the middle-ages to contemporary transphobia.  What is unique to some extent to the Hungarian context is that the word “gender” had virtually no meaning/use in everyday Hungary before the 2010s (i.e., Hungarian language has no gender, and demographic questions regarding “sex” are also more neutral in Hungarian as it doesn’t suggest/assume biological difference like the English word). While AG campaigns thrive in other contexts as well, this lack of familiarity has provided an even easier path for the current Hungarian government to define gender as an ideology and use it as an “empty signifier”, attaching it to concerns over demographics, immigration, loss of traditional values, promiscuity, communism, liberalism, and cosmopolitanism (Barát 2022). AG measurements resulted in the revoking of the accreditation of Gender Studies programs; changes in the constitution demonising and restricting LGBTQ people; and blocking the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, to note just a few examples. 

Nevertheless, AG campaigns are part of a larger campaigning strategy in which a variety of scapegoats are (re)produced using a variety of political techniques/tools. Fearmongering campaigns have also included migrant people of colour and “cosmopolitans” (an arbitrary collection of a variety of actors, who allegedly promote the same liberal/Western values such as the EU, MEPs, George Soros, NGOs, civil society actors). While there are campaigns specifically thematising gender, gender also cuts across all the themes.

Themes are repeated as well as reinforced through the repetition of different political techniques/tools such as referendums, national consultations (nonbinding voting-based campaigns), and information campaigns (e.g., billboards/TV or social media advertisements). What is common in these campaigns is that they all channel fear from a specific issue or a specific group of people that is depicted as a common enemy placed outside of the nation or outside of the promoted national norm.

Thus, there are two important patterns that define these national fearmongering campaigns: on the one hand the repetition of targeted social groups in the campaigns (e.g., migrants, sexual minorities). On the other hand, the repetition of campaign tools, such as information campaigns, referendums, and national consultations. Political capital is forged by the government through the responses it gives to these threats. That is to say, as part of the campaigns, the government prepares interventions that are then portrayed as actions of protections provided by the state. Such interventions include (1) rhetorical protection when politicians stand up in defence of the nation in front of the international or local political community; (2) legal protection for example in the form of changes made to the Fundamental Law, (e.g.,  specifying that a family consists of a female mother and male father); and/or (3) physical protection such as border enforcement.

In such an environment, specific fears are selected for which spectacular solutions can be provided through campaigns of protection. Fears are easily guided and thus other fears, such as those linked to austerity, the crisis of education and care, and financial security are easily overlooked.

By Mirjam Sagi, @MiriSagi